There's Still No Smilin' on Rikers Island

·2 min read
This Tuesday Dec. 2, 2014, file photo shows the Rikers Island jail complex in the foreground within the East River and the New York skyline in the background. Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, declared a disaster emergency and signed an executive order expanding the use of virtual court appearances at Rikers Island jail, saying it would expedite hearings for inmates and lessen some of the burden on corrections officers at a facility in crisis. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
This Tuesday Dec. 2, 2014, file photo shows the Rikers Island jail complex in the foreground within the East River and the New York skyline in the background. Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, declared a disaster emergency and signed an executive order expanding the use of virtual court appearances at Rikers Island jail, saying it would expedite hearings for inmates and lessen some of the burden on corrections officers at a facility in crisis. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

In 1987, Kool G. Rap spit this bar about the infamous New York jail where he spent time as a youth: You might be illin, you might be wildin, but you won’t be smilin on Rikers Island.

Not much has changed in 35 years. In fact, it might be worse.

A month after New York’s new mayor vowed to bring order to the Rikers Island jail, in part by reinstituting solitary confinement, a new report shows that the jail may be more out of control than ever.

The New York Times on Thursday ran an investigation that turned up evidence of gang-leaders in control of large parts of the facility, with corrections officers having little to no say over what happens. “Fight Nights”, in which inmates are forced into combat with each other, are being staged for the entertainment of the gangs. At least one inmate was released from the jail on a judge’s orders after he was forced to participate in a fight.

The story also chronicles the story of a Dominican gang member named “Bacalao”, who rules a corner of Rikers like his own personal fiefdom. Here’s what happened when a prisoner identified as “Relator G” from another unit was placed into Bacalao’s:

As soon as he walked in, six men swarmed and jabbed him with sharp objects, shouting in Spanish. The three officers who had escorted him there did not react. A voice from the rear of the unit told the men that Relator G. was “good,” and the group backed off.

It was Bacalao. A tall, imposing man, he summoned Relator G. to what he called his office, a cell unlike any Relator G. had seen. Bacalao had numerous pairs of expensive, brand-name sneakers — Yeezys, Jordans, Adidas and Balenciaga — despite a rule forbidding detainees from having such items.

Relator G. also counted eight bins full of food, spices, clothing and other items, far more than the one bin permitted to other detainees. Bacalao had seven of the thin, jail-issued mattresses stacked atop one another to make a more comfortable bed, six more than anyone else had. A knife fashioned from a metal pan lay close at hand.

Bacalao explained to Relator G. the rules of “his house”: Keep your cell clean. Take a shower. When a new person arrives in the unit, attack them. Never use the phone without permission.Bacalao then escorted the man to a cell, handed him cigarettes and soup and said, “Enjoy yourself,” Relator G. recalled.

Stay out of jail, kids.

Rikers has become emblematic of many jails and prisons around the nation, trying to manage sometimes violent inmate populations at the same time as they manage staffing shortages and the Covid-19 pandemic. Former NY mayor Bill DeBlasio proposed closing the jail, a move that current mayor Eric Adams supports, but something that would come with major challenges.

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