Surviving Rikers: a mass incarceration story

Edited by Vittoria Lamorgese

Five Mualimm-ak is a Rikers Island survivor. Rikers is the largest and most infamous New York jail. we interviewed him on the bank of the East River in The Bronx, just a few miles away from where he spent most of his adult life. Yet, Rikers is only a piece of a wider puzzle. The U.S. has been holding the record for the highest incarceration rate in the world for several years. The African-American and Latino communities are those paying the highest price. Such a situation, far from being accidental, is the deliberate result of years and years of policies.

1. In the beginning was the prison

5min circa

From the pathways of Barretto Park in South Bronx, on the opposite bank of the East River one can glimpse an imposing construction consisting of several buildings, at least a couple of smokestacks and an array of fences. It looks almost like a factory or an over-militarised industrial island: this is nothing other than Rikers Island, New York City's historic prison. The penitentiary is renowned for being among the largest and most dysfunctional ones on the planet: poor health conditions, violent assaults and suicides are commonplace. Over the last few years, its name has filled pages of newspapers around the world, referred to as "torture island", "prison of horrors", "hellish prison" and so on. There have been discussions about its potential closure by 2027. Yet, this terrible reality has set a standard and served as a model for American prisons and beyond.

Activists in front of the gate of Rikers Island in Queens demand the closure of the prison and protest against the system that discriminates against the poor by demanding bail before trial. February 28th, 2022. New York City, New York (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis)

Five Mualimm-Ak spent twelve years of his life in prison, four of them served in Rikers Island. In 2012 he was released and since then has dedicated his time to fighting against prisons and supporting detainees. In 2015, he founded the association Incarcerated Nation Corporation. It is he who tells us how the prison institution is a central and pervasive factor not only of his life, but of the entire American society.

The very foundation of the state of New York rests, in a certain way, on two structures of social control: Rikers Island and Ellis Island, respectively intended for the detention and the registration of individuals. The prison on Rikers Island was built between 1932 and 1935, but the island on which it was constructed has behind its back a disturbing history related to the slave trade. The Dutch Riker family acquired the territory around 1650 and used its power to hold free African-Americans without any kind of trial and send them to the south as slaves. Until today, the prison carries the racist matrix of its name.

Aerial view of Rikers Island Prison in the early years of its opening. March 30th, 1949. New York City, New York. (Charles Payne / NY Daily News Archive)

Ellis Island, renowned for the reception and registration of migrants, was only formalised in 1892, but there are at least eight million people who’d passed through there before the facility was regularised and opened. The state of New York, on paper, was founded in 1776, and had policies of control and punishment at its core, rather than the much-vaunted American freedom. According to Five, it is precisely the prison system that shapes life in the United States.

As a matter of fact, to this day even in Europe the idea of a society without prisons seems like a distant utopia and the abolition of the penitentiary institution is dismissed as the preserve of some abstruse theorists. The prison has become, little by little, a fundamental part of our social environment and our common sense. But how did we get to this point? How did the penal institution, marked by - among other things - dysfunction and widespread instances of torture pretty much all over the world, become necessary and immanent for all of us?

Yard time in “Bing”, Rikers’ segregation unit. Photo taken by a correction officer. 2015. New York CIty, New York. (Lorenzo Steele Jr.)

The prison form appears to be closely linked to the functioning of our society: its dangerousness and inefficiency is well known, yet it is unthinkable to replace it. Prison is deemed "natural" just as it is natural, in our society, to use time as a measure for exchanges: committing a crime corresponds to one or more months, years of imprisonment. A quantitative equivalence is thus established between crimes and the length of sentences, depriving individuals of a right that, in theory, we all own in an equal way: freedom. Ultimately, prison is nothing more than an economic system: those serving years pay their debt to society in terms of time and freedom. It thus presents itself as the most immediate and civilised form of all punishments, adhering perfectly to the functioning of our society: the institution of prison is "naturalised" and set as its foundation.

The narrative built around it in terms of journalism, film and storytelling does nothing but fuel this conviction. If prison has become part of our worldview as something essential and inescapable, it is also because we continuously consume media images depicting prison life. Over the last few decades, productions of this genre have grown by leaps and bounds, contributing to the construction of an intrusive imagery, aimed at justifying the increasingly dense use of the prison form. From the most classic cult movies about jailbreaks, to Orange is the new Black[1] (2013) to the latest media phenomenon Mare Fuori[2] (2020), to name but a few, the overarching trend is to normalise and make the dynamic of prison life an object of "everyday life". The protagonists live out their experiences, their dramas, within an environment that seems almost familiar.

The prison, in fact, in addition to the juridico-economic foundation of crime/punishment exchange, has a disciplinary one. It replicates within it the dynamics and mechanisms of the social body: like a «rather disciplined barracks, a strict school, a dark workshop»[3]. The disciplinary devices of our society are brought to their maximum expression and intensity in the prison system, which is why jail life, romanticised in films or TV episodes, doesn’t feel so distant to us. Prison becomes an institution we could never do without, replicating and exacerbating disciplinary mechanisms we are already accustomed to. It is portrayed as necessary and intrinsic to our society: coercion thus becomes the only possible means of punishment and control.

Rikers' correctional officers take roll call before starting their shift. May 1st, 2000. New York City, New York. (Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis)

Thus, even if we are witnessing the progressive dismantling of all public institutions, that of prison remains in constant growth. There is less funding for schools, universities, nursing homes and so on, but the prison sector, on the contrary, is subject to continuous investment. A clear and concrete example of this mechanism is the United States of America itself: the collapse of the welfare state has been countered by the "necessary" overdevelopment of the prison system.

The States, with the largest prison population in the world (a quarter of the total), also serve as a model here in Europe. The prison system becomes the only possible answer to any kind of social problem and/or discontent. Rikers Island, in its cruel immensity, is but the most glaring and violent example of a capillary and pervasive structure that operates at 360 degrees.


[1] A comedy-drama series that tells the stories of female inmates inside a US federal minimum-security prison.

[2] An Italian television series that tells the stories of several young people inside a juvenile correctional institution in Naples (inspired by the real jail for minors on the island of Nisida, Naples). The reality narrated in the series, as well as mixing the classic patterns of Italian fiction, can be compared to classic teen-dramas.

[3] Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline & Punish. The birth of the prison (Translation by Alan Sheridan). New York City: Vintage Books.

2. Prison as punishment, inmates as business

9min circa

The United States has been holding the record for the highest incarceration rate in the world for several years now. As of September 2023, according to data from Prison Policy Initiative, the figure comes to 565 arrests per 100,000 inhabitants and over two million people locked up across the almost five thousand U.S. prisons (divided between federal and state) and in juvenile and migrant correctional institutions, plus all of those on various forms of probation (on probation; on parole[4]).  These are the latest numbers regarding American mass incarceration and, although these figures are still exorbitant, they are finally falling. The term 'mass incarceration' refers, however, to a complex and profound phenomenon, which does not only concern the multitude of detained people or purely quantitative data. It refers to an articulated structure in which it is possible to identify three different, interrelated levels: a deeply racist prison system, a large network of institutions and social forces, and a series of consequences and damage inflicted on people's lives far beyond the cell walls.

Inmates of “Rosie”, Rikers Island’s female unit. 2015. New York CIty, New York. (Clara Vannucci)

Mass incarceration is an apparatus of rules, laws and policies designed to control a well-defined segment of the population, deemed dangerous or unproductive. It is a whole political-judicial system built to isolate, marginalise and repress without any possibility of rehabilitation. A repressive organism that penetrates all layers of society, guaranteeing power over the poorest and compromising any possibility of social mobility.

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Such a situation, far from being accidental, is the deliberate result of years and years of policies directed towards a specific trajectory, whose roots can be traced back to its origin. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan had just been elected president of the United States: this is the moment in which the neo-liberal model was definitively affirmed, characterised by drastic cutbacks in welfare and public spending and the almost complete reduction of all forms of social welfare. Those paying the price were the lower-income classes, increasingly fragmented and with fewer and fewer possibilities: in the mid-1980s, the consumption of crack cocaine burgeoned among them, reaching the dimensions of a mass phenomenon.  The Reagan government, in response, resumed the war on drugs policy announced by President Nixon in 1971 and used the crack "epidemic"[5] as a pretext to repress and marginalise them even more. In fact, the harsh punishments of the war on drugs fell on consumers and small-time drug dealers rather than big dealers, who were the only ones responsible for such widespread distribution. Those paying the highest price were mainly Black and Latino communities. It was during these years that the prison population began to grow exponentially: between 1980 and 2000, the number of people incarcerated in state prisons rose from 3,000 to over two million, with a particular increase in imprisonment for minor offences; prisoners for non-violent crimes escalated from 50,000 to 400,000 between 1980 and 1997. The finger was unequivocally pointed at the already marginalised and excluded segments of the population, at the African-American and Latino communities, at those who were considered unproductive. Attention was diverted from structural crimes towards the subaltern classes, aiming to reduce them to total helplessness in the face of a political and judicial system built against them. The racist matrix of measures in the war on drugs is quite explicit: the possession of five grams of crack (consumed mainly by blacks) carried a five-year prison sentence; reaching the same sentence for the possession of cocaine (consumed mostly by rich whites) required possession of up to five hundred grams.

Life inside Rikers in the early 70s. January 1st, 1970. New York City, New York. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Even today, numbers speak for themselves: in every U.S. state, the incarceration rate for African-Americans at least doubles that of whites and it is six times higher than the average across the States. The American prison system remains, to this day, structurally racist. The fight against crime, "cracking down on crime", becomes the new political-media tool to pursue discriminatory and segregationist policies in both racial and economic terms. The prison thus replaces the ghetto dispositif on a functional level: ensuring the imprisonment of a part of the population, stigmatised based on their ethnic origin or deemed economically useless. Those who are victims of the American prison system are in fact completely extruded from the social body: mass incarceration leads to the «civic death of all those it ensnares»[6]. Once one has entered the prison network, getting out is virtually impossible: exclusion extends on a cultural, political and social level, both within and beyond prison walls. One is deprived of the right to vote and of any possibility of participation in political and civic life: to this day, one in seven Black Americans is banned from the polls through legal disenfranchisement and seven states deny more than a quarter of their African American residents the opportunity to vote. Access to secondary education and scholarships is denied, as well as the ability to qualify for public housing, to receive any kind of subsidy and the few forms of welfare. Even after serving their sentence, individuals find themselves entangled in the prison mechanism. Mass incarceration has become U.S. social policy, aimed at ensuring the disciplining of the poor and the confinement of the "outcasts", maintaining a firm distinction between those who are economically sufficient (and white) and a class of "parasites" who cannot or do not deserve to be part of society. It has to do with the reproduction of a multi-layered economic and racial inequality where various social actors participate: from local police to prosecutors to private corporate entities who profit financially.

Photos obtained from Instagram with the hashtag #Rikers. Clockwise from left: The access bridge to Rikers, graffiti on the bathroom inside the visitor centre, the new maximum security wing, the entrance to a chapel, a corrections officer in a teenage unit, an exercise and recreation area. 2015. New York City, New York. (Kelsey Jorgenson/Edgar Sandoval/JB Nicholas/Bryan R. Smith/JR/Gee Force)

In addition to the three levels of mass incarceration - structural racism, far-reaching consequences outside prison, and a political system upholding the status quo - a fourth dimension emerges: the industrial-economic one. Every year, the United States spends a total of 182 billion dollars on the prison system, which today has become one of the most profitable American businesses. A large network of corporations, interest groups and both public and private profits ramify around this expenditure: it is the so-called "Prison-Industrial Complex". Prison, framed in this way, is synonymous with money and profit: investments are made in construction, supplies and in the actual management of penitentiaries.

A view of Manhattan from Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center on Rikers Island, South Bronx. It is the only prison ship in the United States and it is anchored in the South Bronx, near Rikers Island. The ship holds medium and maximum security inmates in 16 dormitories and 100 cells. October 24th, 2003. NewYork City, New York. (Foto di David Howells / Corbis)

On one hand, we have private penitentiaries, direct sources of profit for the companies that run them; on the other hand, we have public jails, saturated in their turn with the profits obtained from products and services offered by other private entities. Both are inextricably linked to the economy of big corporations.

The privatisation of the penitentiary system spread on a large scale in the 1980s: at the same time as massive cuts in public spending, a major prison-building project was initiated. More and more prisons were built, increasingly managed by private companies. In the context of the total dismantling of the welfare state and of an economy exclusively committed to profit, imprisoned bodies have become nothing more than sources of profit. The state, in fact, pays companies a fee for each imprisoned inmate, therefore each company will have an interest in locking up prisoners as long as possible and keeping its facilities full. The relationship between the crime rate and the incarceration rate completely blows up: the increase in prison population is also linked to the possibility of exploiting it as a source of profit. Cracking down on crime is nothing more than a formula to mask the intent to make crime itself economically viable, for both private companies and the American state. Despite the fact that crime rates keep on falling, hypersecurity policies are used to stoke fear, increasing the gap between perceived and actual crime. Prisoners thus become pawns in a dense economic network, involving all levels of the prison system: from construction, to employees, to the supply of goods and services.

The work installed by JR at Rikers Island. He took photographs of inmate’s eyes and pasted them in three different locations around the complex. The artist spoke on this project saying, “[the inmate] wanted me to choose his eye looking left as life in jail is all about watching your back... He came out in the jail Yard when we were pasting. He's 18 years old, it's his second time in Jail. Even if no one will recognize his eye he knows he's part of a bigger picture.” 2013. New York City, New York. (JR)

In fact, the issue of private prisons is only a small portion of the prison industrial system and the speculative structure built into the American prison complex. Since the 1980s, the inflow of capital into the penal economy has grown more and more and prison has become an important area of investment. The players involved are big corporations, supplying prisons with any goods or services, as well as underpaid workers, construction companies, telephone companies, companies running food services and medical facilities, private probation companies, and so on. The American capitalist system identifies a human surplus that cannot be part of society, that class of 'parasites' and "outcasts" mentioned above, and puts it to use. Poverty and imprisonment form a vicious circle from which it is virtually impossible to escape - the bail system being a prime example. Paying bail (around 10,000 USD on average) is practically impossible for the vast majority of the prison population; most prisoners live, even before their arrest, below the poverty line. The inability to pay forces you to remain imprisoned, and once you have served your sentence, it will be impossible to find employment: «poor people's abilities to survive became increasingly constrained by the looming presence of the prison»[7]. Once again, Rikers Island is the most striking example of this mechanism: 85% of its prison population is awaiting trial and serving their sentences for not being able to post bail. There are several cases of suicides committed in the New York prison by inmates who had not even received a sentence yet[8].

In summary, the industrial prison system marginalises an entire segment of the population, excluding them from the social body and making them a source of profit, gaining from their imprisonment and the possibility of obtaining cheap- if not free- labour. As state budgets are increasingly shrinking, prisons are launching new labour programs: inmates repair sewers, clean streets, maintain public spaces and, in addition to performing 'socially useful' services, work for large corporations such as Victoria's Secret, Starbucks or Wal-Mart at much less than minimum wage- if not for free. Those who work under these conditions are also not allowed to unionise. Slavery, in American prisons, does not seem to be such a distant phenomenon.


[4] Probation: An alternative to imprisonment which provides that the offender is subject to court supervision for a minimum of six months and a maximum of three years.

Parole: Early release from custodial sentence as long as the offence is not committed again: in this case, the offender goes straight back to prison.

[5] An expression coined by President Reagan in the context of the war on drugs as a media tool to justify the strong repression acted against the lower classes of the population.

[6] Wacquant, L. (2001) Deadly Symbiosis. When ghetto and prison meet and mesh. Punishment & Society, 3(1), 95-133

[7] Davis, A. (2003) Are prisons obsolete?. New York: Seven Stories Press

[8] A famous case is that of Kalief Browder (1993-2015), a young man from the Bronx arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He served three years at Rikers Island without getting a trial. He remained in solitary confinement for two years and for more than three hundred consecutive days- the UN considers more than 15 days torture.  Kalief took his own life at the age of 21.

3. Mass incarceration beyond American borders

6min circa

As much as we may look at the American system as distant and exceptional, as a case study to be investigated, the reality is unfortunately way different. The direction given by the States in terms of the penal management of poverty and inequality is increasingly becoming a topical issue here in Europe as well. The aim remains the same: social control, segregation and containment of entire sections of population, considered intruders or undesirable.

Inmates on the rooftop of Poggioreale jail, Naples, during protests against restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 pandemic. March 8th, 2020. Naples, Italy. (Salvatore Laporta / KONTROLAB / LightRocket via Getty Images)

In recent decades, several countries of the European Union have witnessed an increase in prison population, which is mainly composed of foreigners, second-generation immigrants and people of non-Western origin. Even here, most of the incarcerations are for minor property crimes, drug dealing or drug consumption. Once again, the class involved is already economically disadvantaged, vulnerable on the labour market and discriminated against because of its "ethnic" origins. For the same crime, a court will be more likely to convict if the defendant does not have citizenship. The whole mechanism is aimed at making immigration «a continental security issue», as it is written in the Maastricht and Schengen treaties, considering it on a par with terrorism or organised crime. The paradox becomes explicit: the treaties are meant to make travel easier and to guarantee freedom of movement on European soil, but only for a rich and, possibly, white class. The capitalistic system geographically reshapes itself in Europe and America by singling out a marginal and poor class, whether black or foreign, to control the labour force in political and economic terms. The dispositif we have already observed in the American case is also reproduced in Europe, with other forms and new victims. The most striking and explicit case of these policies in territories closer to us dates back to just a few months ago, when the British government locked up around five hundred asylum seekers in a barge off the coast of Portland, making them live and sleep in containers. Imprisoned bodies now reduced to commodities, rejected by "free and democratic" western society and relegated to a huge floating parallelepiped.

In Italy, the concrete example of this scheme is the CPR[9], administrative detention centres for migrants considered irregular since they have no residence permit and are awaiting repatriation (which only rarely takes place). Detainees can remain several months in such confinement limbo without having committed any crime, awaiting their fate, just as the detainees awaiting trial at Rikers Island. The holding centres for repatriation have no purpose other than detention; they do not provide educational or recreational paths, nor are they aimed at reception. The Italian state, for 2023 alone, has invested almost six million euros[10] in these facilities. The political choice is clearly one of exclusion. Even if not repatriated, but rather reintegrated into society, a former detainee remains “irregular”: the inclusion of migrant class in the social body is not foreseen in any way.

A photo of the CPR in Brunelleschi, Turin, taken from above. No date. Torino, Italia. (no credits)

We are actually not that distant from the United States of America, as it is also shown by the institution of special prisons, which have nothing to envy from the stars and stripes maximum security prisons. Since their inauguration in 1977, the Italian penitentiary system has branched out into two circuits: one for the more combative prisoners (often linked to the world of political and social movements) and the other for the vast majority of the "dispossessed", foreigners and poor. Imprisonment conditions are getting harsher and harsher and prisoners are forced to solitary segregation, denial of communication with their families, constant searches and constant monitoring by penitentiary officers. The 41-bis measure[11], also known as “carcere duro”, brings this dispositif to the maximum intensity, submitting inmates to inhuman conditions in which they are under 24-hour surveillance. The Alfredo Cospito case[12], in recent months, has succeeded in highlighting the shadows of the Italian prison system, as cruel as the American model.

The aspects of the Italian and European prison system to be analysed would be various, from overcrowding to the use of preventive detention, up to the police abuses of power, but a separate article would be needed to delve into them. What is important, perhaps, is to identify the red thread that binds penal management throughout the western world: repress, control and discipline at any cost. In 2020, during the covid pandemic, inmates, who saw their few rights denied, rebelled. In Modena[13], as in New York, the response was the same: violently repressing, even to the extent of killing, those who tried to cut that red thread, to open a breach in the prison system.

Inmates on the rooftop of San Vittore prison, Milan, during protests against restrictions imposed to to Covid-19 pandemic. March 9th, 2020. Milan, Italy. (Ansa)

Perhaps, without being arrogant, our duty can be to take up those broken voices and at least try to ask ourselves questions. Perhaps imagining a prison-free society can no longer be a distant utopia.


[9] "Centri di Permanenza per il Rimpatrio", Holding Centres for Repatriation. Known until 2017 as CIE (Centro di Identificazione ed Espulsione - Identification and Expulsion Centre), they are a detention system placed under the direct control of the Ministry of the Interior and not the Ministry of Grace and Justice, which runs the regular Italian prison circuit. This means that, due to the inmates' legal status and the Ministry in charge of them, the state is not obliged to guarantee the inmates' normal rights.

[10] Source: Openpolis.

[11] Article 41-bis is a provision of the Italian prison system introduced in 1975 to suppress prison riots and isolate political prisoners accused of terrorism and state subversion. The article was further articulated in 1992 after the Mafia massacres. Today, the majority of Italian prisoners subjected to this regime are accused/convicted of mafia-type criminal association (Article 416-bis of the penal code). This type of detention, among other things, entails: the total isolation of the person in a single small cell, a total ban on communication outside the prison and with other inmates, reductions in yard time and parental visits.

[12] Alfredo Cospito is an anarchist convicted of terrorism in 2023 and subjected to a 41-bis regime even during pre-trial detention as of May 2022. On October 20th, 2022, he started a hunger strike against this dispositif that lasted for 100 days. The strike polarised Italian public opinion and attracted international media attention, leading to accusations by humanitarian associations against the Italian legal and penal system.

[13] The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic triggered riots in all Italian prisons. Prisoners protested against the general tightening of detention conditions and the protests were bloodily repressed amid general media silence. Specifically, the uprising in Sant'Anna jail in Modena, which erupted on March 8th, 2020, ended with the death of nine inmates as a result - according to the official version of the prison authority- of a 'methadone overdose’: all the associations dealing with prisoners' rights have declared this conclusion unreliable, if not totally false. Years later, all the proceedings against the officers responsible for the dramatic events that took place in those weeks (beatings, torture and killings) have ended in nothing, all acquitted or prescribed.

4. References


Alexander, M. (2020). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New Press. 

Christie, N. (1993). Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags, Western Style?. Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge

Davis, A. (2003). Are prisons obsolete?. New York: Seven Stories Press

Fassin, D. (2018). The Will to Punish. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Foucault, M. (1995). Discipline & Punish. The birth of the prison. New York City: Vintage Books

Mathiesesn, T. (2006). Prison on Trial. Sherfield on Loddon: Waterside Press.

Soss, J., Fording, R.C. and Schram, S., (2011). Disciplining the poor: Neoliberal paternalism and the persistent power of race. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wacquant, L. (2001). Deadly Symbiosis. When ghetto and prison meet and mesh. Punishment & Society, 3(1), 95-133