A Season in Hell

Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage By Jarrod Shanahan. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 448 pages. $30.

So far this year, seven people have died while in custody at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex. During ever more regular heat waves, reports spread of incarcerated people gasping for breath under door cracks and sharing one jug of water between twelve men. Violence, guard brutality, prisoner self-harm, and scant medical care are standard. Rikers, in short, is a humanitarian crisis. Five years ago, an official closure plan aiming to shutter Rikers by 2027 was introduced. While abolitionists have rightly called for No New Jails to replace the moribund institution, the plan involves its replacement with four borough-based jails. These, we are told, are to be “fairer,” more progressive sites for caging humans.

Author and scholar of the criminal legal system, Jarrod Shanahan—who was himself briefly incarcerated at Rikers—knows all too well what such promises of jail reform bring. In his new book, Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage, Shanahan offers up a rich, deeply researched history that refuses to treat the island in isolation; it is a story of New York’s politics of carcerality and violence, the long-failed history of building “better” jails, and the possibilities of resistance.

NATASHA LENNARD: Given Rikers’s well-earned, vile reputation, I was fascinated to learn from Captives that the jail actually began as a reformist project, informed by what you call “penal welfarism.” We’re seeing a reemergence of this sort of effort today—the idea of a “feminist” jail in Harlem to replace the Rose M. Singer Center state prison at Rikers, for example; the plan to close Rikers only to build four new, “kinder” jails. Why is it important to understand the history of Rikers as a failed reformist project?

JARROD SHANAHAN: I began this project in explicit dialogue with goodhearted reform initiatives in New York City that nonetheless treated the necessity of constructing new jails as a fait accompli. As the campaign to close Rikers ramped up in 2017, and many of its proponents began advocating the construction of new skyscraper jails to take its place, I was dividing my time between reading archival documents on the origins of some of the city’s most notorious jails and attempting to stay on top of the voluminous writing by contemporary reformers like the Lippman Commission, which I studied alongside my colleague Zhandarka Kurti. I was therefore reading historical justifications for building the bad old city jails, alongside today’s justifications for building good new ones. What I discovered was disquieting: we have been here before.

At pivotal moments across the last century and a half, New York City has responded to humanitarian crises within its human cages by constructing newer and supposedly more humane jails, which soon resembled those they had replaced. This construction was often undertaken with the blessing of accredited experts who provided assurances the mistakes of the old jails would not be made again. But the best-laid plans of jail reformers have led precisely to the mess we find ourselves in today. As reformers discuss Rikers Island as if it is singularly evil, it is worth keeping in mind that protracted effort to modernize the city’s jails according to the values of the Progressive Era resulted in the creation of jails at Rikers Island in the first place, which replaced Blackwell’s Island, a penal colony with a similar reputation to the one Rikers has today. As the geographer Jack Norton told me in the early days of my research: “The first thing you need to know about Rikers is that it began as a reform.”

What does this history tell us about “penal welfarism” more generally?

“Penal welfarism,” which you are right to flag as an important theme of the book, is a useful phrase coined by sociologist David Garland to describe the belief that the punishment system can be used as an instrument of social welfare.

The ideology of penal welfarism, which emphasizes incarceration as the outcome of individual pathology—the moral or psychological failings of the prisoner—helps to disguise the racially-predetermined class violence at the heart of human caging. Under its spell, the major questions of incarceration are deprived of their proper context, the violent compulsion holding together our vastly unequal society. Questions revolve instead around the shortcomings of individual caged people and the best technocratic methods for managing their incarceration, while changing nothing else about society. Unfortunately, the social problems that are quarantined behind the walls of the jail largely do not originate there, and therefore cannot be solved there.  

Captives traces the various events, constellations, and historic conditions—especially from the late 1960s to the early ’90s—that saw a brutal “law and order” approach become hegemonic in how policing and incarceration function. It can seem hard to imagine that this wasn’t always the case, given today’s near-total consensus across party lines that social problems should be responded to with the harshest carceral approaches.

As a teacher, my most important challenge is getting students to understand that the world most of them were born into—where nearly every social problem becomes the occasion for increasing the unchecked power cops wield over everyday life—has not always existed. For those of us who have only known the world of law and order, it is almost inconceivable to imagine a time before hyperbolic appeals to maximizing “safety” and neutralizing potentially harmful people could settle any political debate, on the right or left, and politicians did not engage in what political scientist Naomi Murakawa has called “bidding wars,” struggling to outdo each other on being “tough on crime.” But prior to the mid-1960s, there was a remarkable, if tenuous, bipartisan consensus around an approach to crime and punishment that might be considered radical today, including the ideas that people are products of their environment, incarceration should be used sparingly to correct the failures of society to properly acculturate the individual lawbreaker, and above all, that most people could change if given the right circumstances and opportunities. 

What do you see as some of the key elements behind this shift?

An exhaustive account of the rise of law and order is beyond the purview of Captives or perhaps any book—I suggest reading Garland’s The Culture of Control alongside geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag—but I tried to emphasize a few key factors most central to the New York City story. The first and most important was an actual increase in social disorder that made the appearance of danger, if not its reality, far more visceral in US society. As the postwar economic boom sputtered and stalled out in the 1960s amid a global crisis of profitability, and deindustrialization cut the legs from underneath working-class communities across the US, some of the poorest and most powerless communities in the country often bore the largest brunt of these inherent defects of capitalist society. High levels of unemployment and the withdrawal of state investment in so-called welfare initiatives like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program dovetailed with longstanding patterns of segregation, violence, and neglect to turn urban working-class Black and brown communities, in particular, into optimal settings for antisocial behavior.

The second aspect I’d like to emphasize is how the state and civil society alike responded. While disastrous social crisis is intrinsic to capitalism, the political response to it is nowhere pre-ordained; it breaks down along existing political lines. In the US, at a time when Civil Rights was giving way to Black Power, the color line was a fundamental dividing point in both political and ideological terms. As cities were wracked by diminishing profits and the loss of manufacturing jobs, federally subsidized home loans and highway construction enabled the creation of tax-shielding white suburban enclaves far from increasingly black and brown cities, decimating their tax bases. At the same time, taxpayers’ revolts spread among self-identified middle-class white families who had stayed behind and no longer wished for their taxes to subsidize public services increasingly associated with benefiting Black and brown people.

There was a widespread sentiment, certainly among the ruling class but also among many white families who had benefited from the New Deal and Great Society, that state spending had gone too far. The increased presence of Black and brown people in northern cities like New York was touted by firebrand politicians like Richard Nixon as having caused the crisis in the first place.

Most importantly for my purposes, this period saw a rise in rank-and-file organizing among cops across the US, and later, jail and prison guards. The cops had been getting mobilized since the 1950s, agitating on the local level against the reforms of the Warren Court, which in addition to rulings like the anti-segregation Brown v. Board of Education, also codified a number of civil rights that all citizens could claim in their interactions with cops. The cops hated this. Captives spends a good amount of ink outlining the growth of the organized campaigns of New York City cops, in tandem with national organizations like the John Birch Society, which recognized the commonalities among cops fighting civilian review in the North, and those opposing federally mandated integration in the South. The result was the campaign “Support Your Local Police” a vital precursor to the Blue Lives Matter movement. Following this history, Captives tells the story of how New York cops, and the city’s jail guards after them, in addition to simply being the attack dogs of the rich, used illegal protest methods and the threat of violence to carve out a powerful role for themselves as independent social actors, answerable to virtually nobody.

The result of these trends was the creation of a social order in which the unending chaos of capitalist society and the enduring ravages of structural racism are managed not by social spending on so-called welfare, but on police, prisons, and the military. New York City was an important laboratory for this social order. And if you want to see the outcome of this experiment, take a walk around the city today. It is a sad but poignant historical irony, the profundity of which has yet to be fully explored, that the significantly large Black and brown workforces of NYPD and the Department of Correction trace their considerable social power back to the explicitly racist rejection of the Civil Rights movement in the early days of “law and order.”

In his recent book, A World Without Police, Geo Maher argues against the notion that cops are workers. “Cops aren’t workers,” he told me in an interview, “They are agents of repression, uniformed strikebreakers, what George Orwell called the 'natural enemy' of the working class.” While you share Maher's abolitionist stance, I got the sense that your analysis requires that we do understand corrections officers as workers, whose work is violence against other humans. Am I right in understanding that? And if so, can you explain why you find this framing important, rather than understanding cops and COs as outside the category of worker?

New York cops and guards are an organized force structurally opposed to the dignity and safety of the people they patrol and guard. Their powerful unions campaign most tenaciously for freedom from accountability for the kind of violent acts that would get someone in nearly any other occupation sent to prison. All the while, they promote the myth that there is something uniquely dangerous (labor statistics rebut this) or socially useful about their occupations, in contrast to all others. This argument assumed a particularly nasty valence during the New York City fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s, when, instead of helping to organize with other city workers against any cuts to the budget, they simply argued that other agencies should be cut, not their own. So there you have it, enemies of the working-class, assuming such a thing were to exist.

But it does not follow from this that cops and guards relate to their jobs differently than other people from working-class backgrounds. I read a number of memoirs and novels by guards at Rikers and other places and was struck by how similar this all was to factory literature. The late factory worker turned history Noel Ignatiev actually visited me during my brief stay at Rikers, and when I described for him how the facility operated—endless bureaucratic rules that nobody seemed to follow, guards improvising their job whenever supervisors weren’t looking, and the contravention of written rules not so much as transgression but as necessary to the functioning of the jail—he remarked that it sounded a lot like US Steel.

Unfortunately, guarding humans and pounding steel aren’t the same thing, though many Rikers guards clearly don’t agree. At Rikers, guards’ quest for control over their conditions of labor led to the vociferous demand for the freedom to use violence however they saw fit, and to never have to answer for it, especially not to civilian overseers. The content of their labor is violence against other human beings, which is not a betrayal of their true mission, like the reformers would have us believe, but is just an honest expression of the violent act of locking a person in a cage against their will in the first place.

Freedom to be as violent as they wish is the primary basis of guards’ solidarity with each other and has emerged over time as the primary demand of their powerful union, and really how they measure their power in the city. That’s why I say that guards at Rikers are remarkably ordinary working-class people, relating to their job in a very common way. And it is a job that simply should not exist. You can’t expect a hammer to be anything besides a hammer.

You were jailed at Rikers for some months. How did this experience inform Captives, which is a book of intellectual history? And can you tell us about your process of researching and writing the book, the information you were able to gather, and the difficulties in that process?

I was locked up at Rikers for a short amount of time. My time there wasn’t, as musician Freddy Madball once sang about his time in the same building, “long enough to write this song.” The experience of being caged at Rikers did, however, start me off with a basic set of questions. How did it come to be that guards wielded so much unchecked power? How could they be so inhumane to prisoners who largely hailed from the same communities they did? More generally, I was interested in the origins of the facility where I was locked up. When was it built, and why? I also realized, by dint of observation, that Rikers Island was as much a part of New York City as any place, and needed a serious historical treatment—which, to my shock, nobody had done. Experience got me in the front door, but these questions could only be answered by sustained archival research.

I had the privilege at the time of living off a graduate-student stipend at the CUNY Graduate Center, and of being part of a supportive intellectual environment where my work was either encouraged or else I was just left alone. I was in the Environmental Psychology department, which hardly calls to mind social history, but my colleagues and advisors believed in my project and let me run with it. So I was able to dedicate the better part of three years to immersing myself in public archives, gathering as much documentation as I could on the history of the jails, and reading lots of ancillary histories in order to piece it all together. There is an unfortunate trend among archival historians today who begin their books by arguing that they and only they could have written the book, thanks to their privileged access to institutions and documents, which nobody else could have obtained. I have no interest in discouraging people from taking command of their own past in this way.

Surely, I had advantages going into this project, having a basic theoretical framework for understanding society, having spent a bit of time at Rikers, and most importantly, not having dependents or a real job making claims on my time. But some version of Captives could have been written by just about anyone with a library card and enough determination. The historical studies Noel Ignatiev undertook as a factory worker are voluminous and have outlasted most academic history of that period. One of the most important history books of the last decade, Dixie Be Damned, was written by non-academic historians, rooted in their hard-won experiences and activist concerns. I really think more people should feel empowered to do this kind of research. People who are struggling in the present need grounded histories of the institutions that shape our lives. It doesn’t matter what your credentials are, or if you have any at all. I am not a trained historian, and you don’t have to be one either. Just do the work that the present demands, try your best to be rigorous, and most importantly, don’t make shit up.

Natasha Lennard is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life (Verso, 2019).