The mention of Rikers Island sends a tremor through even the most hardened of New Yorkers. The sometimes dubbed “torture island” located in New York City is now the temporary home of convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein — a far cry from the hills of Hollywood and the vestiges of power and prominence.
Late last month, the disgraced 67-year-old Hollywood producer was convicted on two of five counts – rape in the third degree and criminal sexual act in the first degree – in incidences dating back to 2006 and 2013. After spending his initial post-conviction days at Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital following chest pains, he was ordered to Rikers Island on Thursday as he awaits sentencing.
But what makes the 400-acre Rikers Island so notorious?
“Rikers Island is a city of its own, it is the hell hole jail. It is so dark. Every building has its own stories, none of them were good,” Lenny DePaul, a retired Chief Inspector/Command for the U.S. Marshal Service in New York, told Fox News. “There is something about Rikers Island that would give me an eerie feeling. It is a tough environment, and it is going to be hard for someone like Weinstein.”
Although the bridge to Rikers Island is located in the Queens borough, the island itself falls under the jurisdiction of the Bronx, sitting on the East River near the LaGuardia Airport.
“It holds the most violent and dangerous criminals from New York City’s meanest streets. And it’s one of the country’s largest jails,” noted Malcolm Reiman, a retired NYPD detective from the Bronx Homicide Squad. “It is not really one jail as you might picture it. It is ten jails on an island, each with its own purpose and type of inmate.”
Samuel Braverman, a New York white-collar defense attorney, described it as “a county jail for a city of eight million, with more than 200 languages spoken and a dozen different religions.”
“Buildings were designed for a pre-digital world so it doesn’t allow for good supervision — too many blind spots,” he said. “And everything has a price there, from contraband to sex to luxury items to cellphones to peace and quiet. It is the open market; it just has a big barrier to entry. I have had clients commit every possible crime at Rikers, including killing other inmates, and sleeping with guards.”
While it has a capacity to house some 20,000 – as it did during the crack epidemic of the '90s – the number of inmates inside the 85-year-old jail has dwindled to around 5300, as New York officials push through their plan to shutter the infamous corrections facility.
Last October, the New York City council gave the green light to have it closed by 2026, a move widely heralded as a crucial step in prison reform that many view as unjustly targeting black and Hispanic communities.
“For decades, this city and this country’s answer to every societal problem was to throw people in jail. Nothing symbolizes those failed policies in this city more than Rikers Island,” Corey Johnston, the City Council speaker, stated at the time.
It will be replaced by four smaller jails, which officials pledge will be far safer and more humane, at a cost of $8 billion to the taxpayers. This has stirred some pushback from critics who argue it would be significantly cheaper to renovate Rikers.
“While it is located in one of the most liberal progressive and cosmopolitan cities in our country, (the fact is) it has such poor conditions and poor controls to prevent or root out prisoner abuse by correctional officers and fellow inmates,” conjectured Matthew McCann, a special education lawyer serving New York families.
In 2014, the U.S. Attorney’s Office deemed Rikers a “broken institution” in its report, underscoring that it “violates the constitutional rights of adolescent male inmates.” But the violence is reported to have only surged.
Last year, the New York City Mayor’s Management Report noted that violent incidences had increased from 69.5 per month, for every 1,000 persons, to 55.8 in 2018.
A 2017 Netflix docuseries, produced by Weinstein’s company and music mogul Jay-Z, documented human rights concerns at the facility by telling the story of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who was wrongfully accused of stealing a backpack in 2010. Unable to make bail, he was detained at Rikers for three years, spending much of that time in solitary confinement and beaten by guards.
Two years after his release, Browder took his own life in what activists say was a result of the mental anguish from the physical and sexual abuse suffered at Rikers.
Other chilling happenings at Rikers routinely make for extra official paperwork – from inmates hanging themselves, to murdering others. Over the past decade, violence between inmates as well as guards is documented to have risen almost every year.
“Rikers Island is notorious for the simple reason that its jails are plagued by violence – including sexual abuse,” said Jesse Lerner-Kinglake of Just Detention, which advocates for prisoner rights. “Rikers' terrible track record is a product of the failure of its leaders to keep people safe.”
In the weeks ahead, the jail will serve as Weinstein’s residence. The onetime Hollywood powerhouse now joins the ranks of a slew of other public figures to have been relegated to the Rikers life: rappers Tupac Shakur, Bobby Shmurda and Lil Wayne, the late Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious, former managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Dominique Strauss-Kahn, serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, and the man who assassinated John Lennon, Mark David Chapman.
Law enforcement experts anticipate that the producer mogul will be held in the Rikers Island infirmary. It’s a dorm-style area, according to Reiman, that “is medical and also has jail units for holding inmates in protective custody” and typically considered the “safest area for inmates on the island.”
But danger still lurks in the cracks.
“Inmate populations generally do not look kindly upon inmates who have preyed upon women and children,” Reiman continued. “For those thinking about taking up criminal activity in New York City, I would say, you’re not going to like it in Rikers.”
Braverman anticipates that most of Weinstein’s stay will be with others in protective custody, including snitches and pedophiles.
One former inmate, speaking of the condition of anonymity, further cautioned that Weinstein is in for nothing short of a “rude awakening.”
“The low-paid state workers are not going to care one bit about his elitist and raping old ass,” said the source. “He is going to have a hard time. But he is going to have to accept what he’s given because b*tching will only make it worse.”
Chris Karolkowski of Barlow Security Group also emphasized that if one is not a gang member or an affiliate, “you can expect to have a hard time” as it is a “very predatorial culture.”
It’s either being a predator, law enforcement officers frequently highlight or prey.
Nonetheless, Department of Corrections (DOC) Deputy Commissioner of Public Information, Peter Thorne, told Fox News in a statement Monday afternoon that "under this administration, we have developed new technology and reporting structures, rolled out new training programs, and implemented wide-ranging new initiatives intended to make our jails safer and more humane."
"In some areas, such as the reduction of punitive segregation and the availability of programming, we are already national leaders," he said.
Weinstein, who is now reduced to prison number 06581138Z, faces between five and 29 years behind bars. His sentencing is expected to take place on March 11, with his legal team already vowing to launch an appeal.
“Mr. Weinstein can expect to smell some very foul odors all day long and see rodents running along the floor,” Derek Maltz, former head of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)'s Special Operations Division, said. “The experience will be quite different from his Hollywood celebrity lifestyle.”