Rikers: An Oral History

Graham Rayman & Reuven Blau

Quick Synopsis

A shocking, groundbreaking oral history of the infamous Rikers jail complex and an unflinching portrait of injustice and resilience told by the people whose lives have been forever altered by it.

Publisher’s Synopsis

What happens when you pack almost a dozen jails, bulging at the seams with society’s cast-offs, onto a spit of landfill purposefully hidden from public view? Prize-winning journalists Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau have spent two years interviewing more than 130 people comprising a broad cross section of lives touched by New York City’s Rikers Island prison complex—from incarcerated people and their relatives, to officers, lawyers, and commissioners, with stories spanning the 1970s to the present day. The portrait that emerges calls into question the very nature of justice in America.

Offering a 360-degree view inside the country’s largest detention complex, the deeply personal accounts—featured here for the first time—take readers on a harrowing journey into every corner of Rikers, a failed society unto itself that reflects society’s failings as a whole.

Dr. Homer Venters was shocked by the screams on his first day working at Rikers: “They’re in solitary, just yelling . . . the yelling literally never stops.” After a few months, though, Dr. Venters notes, one’s ears adjust to the sounds. Nestor Eversley recalls how detainees made weapons from bones. Barry Campbell recalls hiding a razor blade in his mouth—“just in case”.

These are visceral stories of despair, brutality, resilience, humor, and hope, told by the people who were marooned on the island over the course of decades. As calls to shutter jails and reduce the number of incarcerated people grow louder across the country, with the movement to close the island complex itself at the forefront, Rikers is a resounding lesson about the human consequences of the incarceration industry.

Book Review

Rikers: An Oral History is a nonfiction account composed from over 130 interviews with those who have experienced Rikers, whether former detainees, parents of detainees, guards, wardens, or politicians.

Rikers is comprised of chapters based upon subject matter, such as race, mental health, contraband, riots, etc. Each chapter begins with a few sentences by the authors followed by many quotes from interviewees. Organized in this manner, I struggle to call Rikers a narrative. Instead, this format creates a very disjointed storyline that lacks editorial input. Each chapter bounces from individual to individual (without knowing anything about the individuals), despite their various backgrounds, roles, and experiences that took place decades apart. While I can appreciate the authors allowing those with first-hand experience to share their stories, I was left grasping for more structure and context. With how little of the book was actually written by the authors, I almost find it unfair to credit them above everyone else who gave them the content for the book.

Similarly, Rayman and Blau provide no real introduction to Rikers for those unfamiliar with the penal system. For example, the authors do not note even the basic information that Rikers is a jail complex and not a prison. I think this is an important detail that some may not understand, especially considering the shockingly long amount of time people are held there. We also learn from interviewees, rather than the authors, that Rikers is several jails and not one, as the name implies. Essentially, the authors supply only very basic surface-level information and fail to editorialize the book into a cohesive narrative. Moreover, despite the chapters being subject-based, the issues are not fully explored and lacked nuance. As a consequence, I was confused with who the target audience is supposed to be. The lack of details point to Rikers being aimed at individuals unfamiliar with the system, but at the same time, it does not offer the fundamental information these readers should have.

Whether a reader is or is not familiar with the penal system, I think they would benefit from a book with greater context. For instance, the authors never compare Rikers to jails outside New York. Readers do not have the information needed to judge what at Rikers is status quo for jails and what is abnormal. As a result, the peculiarity of Rikers is not communicated. Obviously, Rikers is different from other jails or it would not warrant a thick volume such as Rikers: An Oral History.

The only book that I have read similar to Rikers is The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett Graff. Since these are both oral histories, I think it is fair to compare the two books. For me, The Only Plane in the Sky was much superior. Its author, Garrett Graff, skillfully wrote a narrative that wove together individual stories to detail history in chronological order. This cannot be said for Rikers: the history part is rather lacking and the stories are only tangentially connected by subject.

Despite its poor composition, I do believe that Rikers: An Oral History did humanize the jails’ detainees and displayed guards’ and politicians’ attitudes. Although I have mixed feelings about detainees’ experiences being intermixed with those in power – guards, wardens, etc., I appreciate that the interviewees represented a diverse sample of people.

I will also note that the audiobook is narrated by all of those quoted in the book, which I really appreciated. It was nice to hear the stories from those who experienced them. My only issue with this was that the sound mixing was uneven and required me to frequently adjust the volume as some individuals were louder and some quieter.

Overall, Rikers: An Oral History is filled with interesting personal stories but outside of detailing those, this book did not do much. It did not see aimed to educate, persuade, or make an argument. I would recommend it if you are just looking for some entertaining tales about life at Rikers. If you want to learn more about the issues plaguing Rikers and other U.S. jails and prisons, this is not the book for that.


Overall Rating

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.


Rating: 4 out of 5.


Rating: 2 out of 5.

Rikers: An Oral History


Nonfiction: Humanities & Social Science, Penology, and History

Publication Date
January 17, 2023


Storygraph Rating
4.13 stars

Goodreads Rating
4.16 stars

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