America's Jail How Law and Order Made Rikers Island Hell on Earth

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America's Jail How Law and Order Made Rikers Island Hell on Earth by Shanahan, Jarrod, 9781788739955
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  • ISBN: 9781788739955 | 1788739957
  • Cover: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 10/5/2021

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The first definitive history of America's most notorious jail and the violent rise of New York City's law enforcement

Just about everybody knows the name Rikers Island. A fixture of pop culture and underground prison lore alike, the sprawling East River jail complex has become synonymous with both the horrors of mass incarceration and the structurally-racist class domination at its core. But how did Rikers Island get to be this way? Captives of a New Alcatraz represents a scrupulously researched answer to this question, written for a lay audience in an accessible narrative form. It also represents a political intervention in an ongoing policy debate over the island's future which grabs headlines on a near-weekly basis. Befitting the high stakes of the present Rikers debate, the issues explored in this work have broad implications for the future of mass incarceration in the United States and beyond. Moreover, Captives is a highly personal work for the author, as his interest in the island's history dates to his own incarceration there, which lead him to research the origins of the building where he was held.

Drawing from extensive archival research, decades of journalism, interviews, prisoner testimonials, and firsthand experience, Jarrod Shanahan tells the story of how so many miserable jail facilities ended up on one tiny East River islet, by charting the unwitting cooperation between prison reformers, who built jail infrastructure on the optimistic wager it could be used for social good, and the forces of organized retrenchment (cops and prison guards organizations), who ensured this would never come to pass.

By tracing the failure of jail reform in postwar New York in detail, Captives of a New Alcatraz casts considerable doubt on jail reformers' ability to solve the problems of incarceration with better incarceration, even in shiny new jails. As his spectacular history makes clear, any serious challenge to mass incarceration must focus on offsetting and diminishing the social power held by police, jail guards, and other key actors in the security state, coupled with a radical agenda for redistributing assets and building autonomous power within traditionally marginalized communities.

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