Rikers Island, New York’s infamous jail, has a reputation of violence, corruption and oppression. Recently, activists hoped to have the prison’s name changed have after historians linked the name Rikers to a Dutch family that participated in an illegal slavery scheme.
Richard Riker, a descendant of Dutch immigrant Abraham Ryken, was reported to be a member of the New York Kidnapping Club, a group that illegally rounded up free Blacks and sold them off to slave owners in the South. New York didn’t outlaw slavery until 1827, and the North wasn’t much fairer than the South in terms of slave ownership up until that point.
In the period between 1815 and 1838, Riker oversaw a political seat where he commanded the criminal courts. In 1828, New York passed a law banning the Fugitive Slave Act in the state, which would have allowed so-called fugitives a right to a fair hearing. Riker allegedly denied Blacks this right and used his political connections and wealth to reinstate the Fugitive Slave Act.
Abolitionist David Ruggles and his compatriots battled with the Kidnapping Club and other such groups, defending those who encountered the slave catchers. The abolitionist papers reported on the illegal acts and published the names of slave catchers among their national newspaper network.
Rikers, which opened in 1932, has long been the subject of criticism and concern. In times past, the prison was the site of violence and even murder, although that has been somewhat quelled in recent years. However, the oppressive and dangerous conditions of the prison still exist and even moved one young man to take his own life.
Kalief Browder, who was accused of allegedly stealing a backpack, served three years in the prison without trial. Upon his release, Browder struggled with the outside world due to the abuse and solitary confinement he endured in Rikers. In 2015, Browder, then 22, committed suicide.
A six-part Spike TV documentary, “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story,” made its debut last March. One of the executive producers of the documentary is Shawn “Jay Z” Carter.
PHOTO: WPIX screenshot