The Cruel Theater of Carceral Capitalism—A Review of Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage.

Shanahan, Jarrod. Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage. New York: Verso, 2022.

Reviewed by David Helps

Thirty years ago this September, some six thousand off-duty members of New York’s Finest descended on City Hall, ostensibly to oppose Mayor David Dinkins’s plan for a police civilian review board. The nearly all-white mob drank brazenly from beer cans, hurled slurs at Black reporters, and carried signs calling the mayor a crackhead. A speech from Rudy Giuliani, who had lost the mayor’s race to Dinkins in 1989, worked the crowd into a frenzy. Giuliani would take power in the following year’s election by winning large majorities in Queens and Staten Island, where support for the NYPD was—and remains—highest.

Another future mayor was on the scene that day. Eric Adams was a 32-year-old transit cop, and he was horrified by what he witnessed. It was a scene “right out of the 1950s,” he told Newsday at the time. “A drunk, racist lynch mob storming City Hall and coming in here to get themselves a n—.”

Last June, when Adams won the Democratic primary for mayor, pundits saw a clear repudiation of the movement to re-envision our cities without police, jails, or prisons. But for a brief period, the common sense on public safety had clearly shifted. Calls to defund or abolish the police appeared in New York’s most venerable media outlets. Politicians promised to hold killer cops accountable by ending the “qualified immunity” doctrine and reforming how police unions negotiate contracts. New Yorkers renewed the call to shut down Rikers, carrying forward the memory of Kalief Browder. In all this work, the question was asked again and again: How did cops and guards amass so much power, over not just prisoners and suspects, but the cities that employ them and the publics they are said to serve?

This question is at the heart of a new history of New York, told through its most infamous jail complex. In Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage, scholar-activist Jarrod Shanahan reframes the story of postwar New York and its collapse around the crisis in its jails. “Just as one overturns a log and observes the bugs who enrich the soil,” Shanahan writes, “if you turn over the sanitized spectacle of contemporary Times Square—or Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, Long Island City, and all the rest—you see Rikers.”

Though largely undeveloped before 1900, Rikers Island’s location in the East River made it an attractive place to quarantine New York’s social problems. In the 1890s, it was briefly used to contain Chinese Americans who had contracted leprosy. The island saw its first permanent holding center with the construction of a workhouse in 1897. Its first modern jail, the Rikers Penitentiary, opened in 1935 under Mayor Fiorella La Guardia.

Shanahan has witnessed the cruel indifference of Rikers up close. In summer 2014, he was held at the Eric M. Taylor Center for 45 days—“roughly the average stay,” he notes—during the NYPD’s crackdown on anti-police protesters. Inside Rikers, Shanahan saw a continuation of the same forces that led Black people in Ferguson to take back their streets. “This was a place for discarded people,” he writes, “where nobody cared if you lived or died.” How did a “patch of reeking landfill” become a dumping grounds for so much human misery?

Aerial view of the Rikers Island jail complex, connected to Queen’s by the narrow Rikers Island Bridge, which corrections officers occupied in 1980. LaGuardia Airport is directly below. Photograph by Don Searls, 2010, Wikimedia Commons (CC by 2.0).

For Shanahan, Rikers is an index of social-democratic New York and its overthrow by the “twin figures” of “neoliberalism and mass incarceration.” In the early postwar period, the island was a bastion of “penal welfarism”: the belief in correctional facilities as instruments of progressive social policy. In 1953 Anna M. Kross was tapped to oversee the Department of Corrections (DOC) and transform Rikers into a state-of-the-art jail system. Kross was a scion of working-class New York; raised on the Lower East Side by Jewish refugee parents, she began her career representing unions. Under Kross the DOC was reorganized around research and rehabilitation. “Just give me the trained professionals,” she told Mayor Robert Wagner.

Yet the goal of enlightened incarceration proved elusive. Even the most carefully designed and administered facilities were compromised by overcrowding. The city was, as a 1966 report determined, “spending more and more money to build more and more jails designed to hold more and more people who should never have been sent to jail in the first place.”

Time and again, this message was ignored. Throughout Shanahan’s book, higher powers order New York to alleviate overcrowding. This riddle would be solved one of two ways: lock up fewer people or build more jails. Over and over, the city chose the latter path—extending its carceral archipelago.

Shanahan interrogates the idea that jails can serve a positive social function, but he’s careful not to caricature the penal welfarists. Building better jails could not solve the urban crisis, but this was hardly Anna Kross’s fault. Liberal administrators were given an impossible task: dispose of the city’s disinherited, but humanely. And yet, by entrusting jails to do more, reformers also expanded the size and purview of Rikers’s grim carceral machinery. That they did so in the name of advancing the public good is an object lesson for today’s reformers: better human cages are still cages.

With New York’s jails teeming, those who worked the system began to build power. Unlike others on the left and in the prison abolition movement, Shanahan takes seriously that cops and jailers are workers, albeit with a distinct worldview and workplace culture. In New York City guards and police belong to the powerful Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) and the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), respectively. Shanahan situates these unions within the thrust of postwar labor history in New York: its municipal welfare state, large public-sector workforce, and the bargains struck between liberals and union leaders to maintain labor peace. Emblematic was the 1967 Taylor Law, which offered city unions partial recognition in exchange for a ban on public sector strikes.

Yet guarding prisoners is clearly different from driving a bus or collecting trash. Shanahan shows how corrections officers are pitted against not so much their employer, as the human beings whose lives they control—“the raw material of their labor.” More than any other demand, Rikers guards pursued “the power to use violence indiscriminately.” Bus drivers and sanitation workers wanted a dignified life; cops and guards demanded “unquestioned power.”

While they owed their strength to prolabor policies, COBA and PBA only undermined the local labor movement. The latter led the charge against “pattern bargaining,” the norm in which benefits negotiated by one municipal union would set the standard for all others. Rather than fight to broaden and expand the liberal social contract, this political force would “serve itself.”

Throughout this period, guards and police officers punched above their weight. As public employees, strike action was prohibited by law; yet guards and police waged wildcats and other confrontations to establish de facto control over their workplaces. Their unions emerged as “a powerful niche in city politics”—one that was “answerable to nobody.” When New York City teetered on the edge of bankruptcy in 1975, police fought to maintain their power, most infamously when hundreds of laid-off cops, many visibly drunk, took over the Brooklyn Bridge in a precursor to the City Hall Riot.

The conditions at Rikers deteriorated rapidly after the election of Ed Koch as mayor in 1978. Guards and cops became “junior partners,” Shanahan argues, “in the neoliberal restructuring of New York City.” In most histories of neoliberalism, in New York and beyond, it is bankers, neoclassical economists, and reactionary white taxpayers who are the agents of revolutionary change. But Captives reveals the central, active, and productive role that the police and guards played in determining New York’s fate, post-bankruptcy. On one hand, Koch had promised to get tough with city unions—there would be no more “sweetheart deals.” On the other, he could not afford to upset the forces of law and order—the workers who managed the social fallout of economic restructuring.

In 1980 more than eight hundred Rikers guards went on strike, in violation of the Taylor Law. They were incensed not by stagnant wages or dwindling benefits, but by DOC’s efforts to limit the use of force against prisoners. In response, COBA members blocked the Rikers Island Bridge—the only way to access the island without a boat—cutting off the supply of visitors, medication, and food. Koch backed down; DOC reversed its policy. It was a triumph for the guards, won “at the expense not of the city coffers but the far more disposable rights of prisoners.”

Anyone paying close attention would be forgiven for thinking that Rikers guards were in charge, and not the city’s three-term Democratic mayor. COBA was a Frankenstein’s monster that, once brought to life, could no longer be controlled.

Mayor Ed Koch accepts a ceremonial check form President Ronald Reagan, flanked by New York Governor Mario Cuomo, Senators Al D’Amato and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and members of Reagan’s cabinet, September 1981. As the Democratic mayor of a historically liberal city, Koch epitomized the bipartisan commitment to neoliberalism and mass incarceration that gripped the country in the 1980s. NAID: 75855017, Reagan White House Photographs, National Archives.

On October 13, 1986, prisoners in Rikers rebelled. Uprisings had roiled across the island many times before, triggering many of the past investigations and reforms. On that day, prisoners barricaded themselves with bedframes and issued a series of demands, including the removal of one especially loathsome guard. Over a week, prisoners routinely clashed with guards. So Dickensian were these conflicts that at one point tensions exploded after someone in the chow line grabbed a second glass of orange juice. While it was a small act of defiance by a prisoner that set off the violence, it was guards who were prepared to fight. They alone “had considerable weaponry, endless backup, and the legal monopoly on the use of violence, for which they had seized a wide berth through decades of activism.” At one point, a group of guards beat a prisoner over the head while the warden watched, according to an internal investigation. A union leader was heard hollering, “Show this motherfucker who is running the jail!”

Out on the streets, the city was unravelling. On July 3, 1992, police shot and killed José “Kiko” García in Washington Heights, setting off protests and looting “that engulfed upward of forty blocks.” In his one term as mayor, David Dinkins beat back PBA attacks by announcing a “War on Fear,” accompanied by the biggest expansion of the NYPD in its history. Yet the mayor’s plan to reform toothless oversight measures aroused the rank and file’s ire. Viewed within the long arc of Captives, however, the City Hall Riot becomes merely the decisive event in a decades-long coup.

Captives is a vivid, disturbing, and timely chronicle of New York’s long crisis. The election of Eric Adams constitutes a major attack on the movement to transform public safety. As a candidate, Adams distanced himself from the PBA, which endorsed Donald Trump in 2020. But as mayor, Adams has done more to unleash the power of the cops than any leader since Giuliani. NYPD sweeps of tent cities and subway loiterers are “cruel theater”—escalations in the war on the urban dispossessed. Increasingly, it is cops and guards who control our cities.

How do we take them back? Carceral unions have reinforced the pernicious belief that their members uphold public safety and other workers do not. Nowhere is it “carved in stone,” writes Shanahan, that these jobs are “more essential to society than a teacher, trash collector, social worker, park ranger, or any other public employee.” Earlier this year, the horrific mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which police failed for 78 minutes to confront the gunman, again raised the question: “Why Are Police So Bad at Their Jobs?”

Captives ends with a discussion of the ongoing movement to close Rikers. Rather than build new and more modern facilities, organizers share an anti-reformist demand: that “the penal colony be closed, and replaced with nothing.” But as those doing the work can attest, to transform public safety will require more than dismantling jails and prisons. It means changing everything.

The question then becomes when Rikers finally closes, what will New Yorkers build in its place?

David Helps is a PhD Candidate at the University of Michigan and a researcher with U-M’s Carceral State Project, where he leads a study on inequality and the carceral state in Detroit. His writing for general audiences has appeared in The Nation, The Washington Post, and Foreign Policy magazine, among other outlets. His article, “‘Neighborhood Nightmares’: Drug Dens, Finance, and the Political Economy of the Crack Crisis” is forthcoming in the Journal of Urban History.

Featured image (at top): The iconic Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn, a year before New York City’s bankruptcy. Photograph by Danny Lyon, 1974, NAID: 555898, DOCUMERICA: The Environmental Protection Agency’s Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, National Archives.

One thought on “The Cruel Theater of Carceral Capitalism—A Review of Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage.

  1. great review. To answer your question, “what NYC will build in its place” City Council has passed three local laws about Renewable Rikers. This is a plan to turn the island into renewable energy generation and storage, as well as a wastewater treatment and composting facility, and to remove polluting infrastructure from the communities most impacted by illegal stop and frisk and mass incarceration on Rikers. To learn more about Renewable Rikers, you can read Decarceration with Decarbonization


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