Rikers Island is one of the nation’s most notorious jails.
A lesser-known fact: It is also a landfill.
The original 87.5 acre slab of marshy land between North Queens and the South Bronx was purchased by New York City from a private owner in the late 1800s. The New York Commission of Charities and Corrections hoped to open a workhouse there to alleviate crowding on Welfare Island, now Roosevelt, another slice of waterlogged land just around the bend of the East River. Welfare Island hosted the city’s asylums, jails, and poorhouses at the time, and it was running out of room. The city needed another void into which it could flush all its forsaken souls. Rikers was it. The city used prison labor to build out the island with ash and other garbage until it spanned more than 400 acres. Landfilling continued until 1943, several years after the first inmates arrived.
In 1935, the first Rikers corrections facility opened amid a dozen mountains of flaming garbage. Frequent, sometimes spontaneous fires from coal ash and incineration practices sent filthy clouds of smoke and ash into the air. In order to save face for the 1939 World's Fair happening just across the water in Queens, the island was cleaned up a little. Most of NYC's garbage was subsequently rerouted to Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, but all that trash still lurks under its buckling brick buildings and grassy lawns.
Today, something like 11,000 people are incarcerated on Rikers. They’ve been thrown out of society, tossed onto the scrap heap in the middle of the water a dozen miles upstream from the Statue of Liberty.
The ground underneath Rikers is unstable. The trash rots and shifts, imperiling foundations and cracking water pipes. Water outages related to this shaky infrastructure can last a full day or longer during which time toilets and showers become inaccessible and drinking water is cut off. Sometimes sewage and draining backups flood bathrooms and cells.
So it stinks on Rikers. As the island’s waste layer decomposes, it emits noxious methane, which doesn’t just smell bad and ruin air quality. It is also a super-powerful greenhouse gas. Few of the facilities on Rikers are air-conditioned, and the extreme temperatures coupled with the gnarly air exacerbate chronic health issues like asthma that are common among the prison population.
“Rikers Island is a symbol of brutality and inhumanity and it is time for us to once and for all close Rikers Island,” said New York city council speaker, Corey Johnson, who led the successful campaign to close the Rikers jail complex. Rikers is slated to close by 2026, its residents shuttled around to four other jails scattered throughout the boroughs. That’s nice, but it isn’t a panacea. Rikers is not the only prison built on wasteland.
Pennsylvania’s maximum-security SCI Fayette prison abuts a dump site for toxic coal-ash from a nearby mine. Wind carries the dust into the prison’s structures and rain washes it into the groundwater. Richard Mosley was incarcerated at SCI Fayette for twelve years, and he spent the whole time sick with respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. Everyone around him was sick, too, with everything from runny noses to rashes. He blamed the coal ash. Scientists support him.
Mosley made a big fuss about the conditions and continued to do resistance work around the prison’s environmental problems long after his release. He explains how society’s garbage people end up sick and dying on its waste land with shimmering simplicity. “This is something that’s going on throughout the country,” he said in an interview with The Outline. Industries “extract all the good stuff from the land, then they sell it to waste companies that contaminate the land, and then they sell it to prisons. Then they start shipping inmates there, and people start getting sick.”
Paige Williams, a cartographer, mapped prisons’ proximity to EPA Superfund sites when she was a student at Humboldt State University. The Superfund designation denotes an area of land that is so contaminated by hazardous materials, it threatens public health. She found that 589 of the 1,821 federal and state prisons in the U.S. are within three miles of a Superfund site; 134 lie within one mile. Several of these same prisons and jails are used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain immigrants, including so-called “unaccompanied minors.” While cleanup efforts are underway at many of these sites, the important part of this equation is the correlation coefficient between wastepeople and wastelands, a cartography of cruelty that looks like bullet holes on a map, grouped effectively for a kill.
People who die in prison— as a result of homicide, suicide, illness or old age— are often buried in pauper’s graves, also known as potter’s fields. New York City’s largest potter’s field is also on an island and until recently, inmate laborers dug its graves and buried its dead.
Taking all this into consideration, prisons are among the most remarkable sites of waste on the planet. If we continue to waste people this way, we will also continue to waste land, air, and water.