What is the Largest Prison in the Free World?

Bob Mayer
2 min readOct 19, 2022
Rikers Island

If you fly into or out of LaGuardia, coming in or going out over the Bronx — which a plane seemed to do every two minutes while I was a kid as we were underneath the flight path — you can see Rikers Island quite close to the end of the runway. The Bronx is at the bottom of the picture and LaGuardia, to the right above Rikers.

It’s a 413-acre island in the East River, between da Bronx and Queens. It belongs, oddly enough, to the Bronx even though the bridge to it goes to Queens. Gee, thanks, Queens.

It employs roughly 10,000 corrections officers, which is a lot, and 1,500 civilians. Its capacity fluctuates but is almost always way too many. There are ten separate facilities on the island capable of holding roughly 14,000 prisoners, although researching this shows the number to change depending on who is listing it.

Like many places in New York City, it was built on top of a garbage dump. Seriously, you can hardly dig anywhere in the city and not hit either garbage or bodies. After being purchased by the city in 1884, for the whopping cost of $180,000, it was used as a dumping ground for pretty much everything that was loaded onto barges. BTW, that cost is around 5.5 million today.

It was originally only 90 acres, so that gives you an idea of how much stuff was dumped there over the years.

Like Hart Island, it was utilized as a training area. Two units of note, the Hawkins Zouaves and the 20th Colored trained there. Also, like Hart, near the end of the war, it was used to house Confederate Prisoners.

Because it was built on garbage, the island leaks methane. This is not good for the health of either the prisoners or the guards. The ground also is prone to shifting as the material it was built on top of moves about and condenses.

In other words, Riker’s Island is a mess.

Excerpted from: New York City Little Black Book 1: Secrets, History, and Trivia of the World’s Greatest City.

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Bob Mayer

West Point grad; Special Ops Vet; NY Times bestseller of over 80 books; for free books and over 200 free downloadable slideshows go to www.bobmayer.com