What happens when you jam almost a dozen jails, bulging at the seams with society's cast-offs, onto a spit of landfill, purposefully hidden from public view and named after the family of a judge who sent escaped slaves and free Black men to plantations in the South? Journalists Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau have spent two years interviewing more than 130 people comprising a broad cross-section of lives Rikers has touched-from detainees and their relatives to officers, lawyers, and commissioners, with stories spanning from the 1970s to the present day. The accounts that emerge call into question the nature of justice in America.
Even before opening to the first page, I suspected that an oral history of Rikers would be fraught because of who gets to speak. Would it just be those who suffered? Or would we hear from guards and how they treated people? ... Rikers answers those questions by demonstrating that there is not a single story of the place ... But Rikers is far more than just a collection of the stories of people who have served time there or worked there ... These pages, in their purposeful lack of objectivity and their specificity, become, through the sheer number of maddeningly similar tales, more honest than a piece of scholarship might ever be. The cacophony becomes not the story of any particular person but that of the brick and mortar and barbed wire of a disaster built on a garbage dump ... Unflinching.
At 425 pages, the sheer number of voices in the book sometimes become repetitive and the speakers sometimes are incoherent. Nonetheless, the assembly of testimony presents a powerful portrait of a failed institution.