Rikers Island: An Indelible Stain in the Land of the Free 

Anna Pastoressa, the mother of an ex-detainee, speaks of the struggle during six years of visits to Rikers. A story where advocacy, art, and resilience intertwine with the horrors of this dreadful jail complex. 

News Feature

By Alice Finno / Matthew Staff || Edited by Jacopo Menichincheri

NEW YORK CITY — If you have ever thought of New York City as the land of freedom and opportunities, you’ll be surprised to learn about Rikers Island: 400 acres of cruelty, suffering, and inhumanity situated in the East River, just above Queens. With a jail population of six thousand detainees on average, Rikers Island is one of the most notorious jails in the United States for its violations of human rights and corruption. Despite the terrible living conditions and the mistreatment of incarcerated people becoming public in recent years, not much has improved, and just when it seems it can’t get worse, the devastating story of another detainee comes to light.  

Anna Pastoressa left Italy in the 80s to start a new life in New York City. She would have never imagined that, years later, her son, Jairo Pastoressa, would end up in Rikers and that she would become one of the most committed advocates for its closure. For the six years that her son was in Rikers awaiting trial, Anna visited every weekend “going through hell” just to see him.

“I came here because I love New York, and then what happened to him is like the darkest thing that could have happened to anybody,” says Anna. 

As soon as visitors get off the only bus that reaches Rikers Island, they are met by correction officers who start yelling at them the instructions to follow. Once they enter the facility, visitors must go through metal detectors, which can easily ring for less experienced visitors not aware of the dress code to follow. When this happens, they are pulled out of the line and subjected to a strip search, where abuses are much more likely to happen.  

It was horrible because not only they treat the people who are incarcerated like criminals, they abuse them, they abuse them mentally, physically, and sexually, but they also abuse the visitors. 

Anna recalled cases when the correctional officers squeezed her breast or forced her to open her pants and looked at her crotch to check for drugs. This procedure is invasive and very frequent even though it should not be happening, and only recently a class-action lawsuit for illegal strip searches in NYC jails has been settled for $12.5 million. Among the long list of clothes not to wear are sweatshirts with zippers, hoodies, uniforms, jewels, hats, shorts, skirts, or dresses more than three inches above the knee, and no more than one layer of clothes. Even in winter, visitors are required to remove any extra layer of clothing, including coats, jackets, overshoes, and long johns. Anna still remembers the freezing cold that she experienced during the visits. “I used to try to hide my undershirt,” she told me. She had the impression that the correctional officers left the windows open on purpose to make visitors feel uncomfortable, but all these obstacles never stopped her from visiting her son.  

You don’t know sometimes who the criminal is because here are the bars, here is the supposed criminal, and on the other side is the correction officer, the other criminal: it could be the other way around. 

Some days the checks were worse than others, and it was clear to Anna that not all the visitors were treated the same way: she witnessed correctional officers pull some people out of the line without inspecting them, making it very easy to smuggle drugs into the jail. Jairo also told her he had personally seen correctional officers giving out drugs to some detainees who would then sell them and give part of the money back to the correctional officers. Corruption in Rikers has been a recurrent problem over the years, and cases of drug trafficking are often reported in the news.  For Anna, what was even more striking was the fact that both the incarcerated people and the correctional officers in Rikers Island were mostly Black and Hispanic people coming from low-income neighborhoods. She said it wasn’t rare for them to know each other, and sometimes the correctional officers even had relatives in Rikers. It was hard not to think about it: people who used to live near each other, perhaps go to the same school or church, were suddenly turned against one another, as correctional officers became violent and abusive towards the same people they used to hang out with.  

The law says that you’re innocent until proven guilty, but it doesn’t work like that – here you have to prove you’re innocent. 

Jairo was arrested in 2010 for killing a man during a dispute. He turned himself in, claiming to have acted in self-defense, and he was locked up in Rikers while waiting for trial. The interminable wait ended when he decided to take a plea deal to be out of jail in 10 years. Anna said he could not endure any more waiting without knowing how much longer he would have had to stay in Rikers. Jairo’s story is similar to that of many other detainees who end up pleading guilty only because they arrive at a point when the psychological pressure to accept the deal and the uncertainty about their future is too much to handle; a situation aggravated by the unbearable living conditions in Rikers.  

Anna stressed that the detainees were given scarce and unhealthy food and pills to keep them calm, which weakened their physical and mental abilities. Most of the time, she couldn’t recognize her son: he was gaining weight, and when he came into the visitors’ room, he was always distracted and tired; the opposite of the lively, muscular boy she knew. Nevertheless, this was nothing compared to the extreme heat they suffered and the lack of air conditioning or air circulation. Anna claims Jairo saw some people being carried out of their cells dead because of this.  

“I can’t take it: it’s too hot.” 

“I’m completely naked; I’m gonna rip my skin from how hot it is.” 

 “I can’t sleep.”  

These are the words Jairo told his mother, led to exasperation by the dreadful conditions he was forced to live in every single day.  

It’s an environmental problem, it’s a human crisis, you look at it, from every side of it, it’s a problem: it needs to be shut down.

Besides the heat, Rikers Island has a huge problem with water leaks. Anna saw it herself in the visitors’ room, but her son told her that in their cells it is much worse, as sometimes he would wake up completely wet, with nowhere else to move, and be forced to sleep on a soaked mattress. The leaks also caused the mold to start growing in the cells, so the detainees have to breathe the harmful air and live in an environment that damages their health. The island itself is toxic as it was landfilled with garbage, so the detainees and the workers in Rikers have to endure the terrible, noxious smell and fumes emanating from the decomposing garbage. A problem that has made the ground unsteady and compromised the very old infrastructures, making them increasingly dangerous, especially in the eventuality that a climate disaster, like Hurricane Sandy, would hit. 

These hellish living conditions make life in Rikers a nightmare, and not every detainee can bear it until the end of their sentence. In the past five years, there has been an alarming increase in the number of self-harm and suicides, and a tragic record of 17 deaths among detainees in 2022, the highest since 2013. To complicate the situation, more than 40% of the people incarcerated in Rikers suffer from mental illnesses, so they would need to receive treatment in appropriate facilities, instead of witnessing their health deteriorate even more while they are locked up in Rikers. Anna said that Jairo was terrified of his own psychiatrist, and one day, he called her screaming, upset, saying that he would not go to the psychiatrist even though there would have been repercussions. Jairo didn’t feel safe speaking with him, as he wanted to know all the details of his crime and seemed to enjoy listening to his trauma, she stated. After this episode, Anna called the jail, worried about her son, and the answer she received was, “I’m sorry, we cannot give you any information because it’s our property, your son is our property.” 

When they put you in solitary confinement, they don’t call it solitary confinement. They give it other names, so you don’t know what’s going on, like Special Housing Unit. 

One day, Anna couldn’t reach her son, and she was informed that he couldn’t make calls because he was in the Special Housing Unit (SHU). A month later, when he came out, he told her that he had been locked in solitary confinement. Alone, in a small cell, for 24 hours a day, with a clogged toilet and a sink that only had hot water during summertime, hearing the screams of all the other people in solitary confinement while suffering from the heat and hunger — as he often didn’t receive any food.  Anna wondered how anyone could remain sane after experiencing that. 

My son is a graffiti artist. He does murals and graffiti, and he paints, so that’s what he was doing in Rikers: he was painting and drawing because he needed an escape. 

Anna holds the drawing Jairo made for her 
Photo by Tomas Mantilla 

Jairo managed to survive the harsh reality of Rikers through his art. He had to become creative and use whatever he could find around him since he didn’t have access to any type of material. He ripped bed sheets and pillowcases and painted on them using coffee or Kool-Aid powder. He used to wet newspapers to get the ink from them, and then mix it with lotion to make it denser, or glue things together using toothpaste. Everything he could find around became a way to make art, a way to escape, as well as a connection with the outside world, as he started making little soap sculptures for his friends.  

Now that he’s out of Rikers, Jairo can’t even look at those artworks because they bring him right back to the moment he made them and the demons he was fighting to survive in Rikers. However, Anna kept everything her son made in those years, posting pictures of his art on Instagram and eventually displaying his pieces in galleries and exhibitions of prison art, showing them to people and selling them. 

Jairo’s works at the “Escaping Time” prison art show on Governor’s Island  
Picture from FreeLinkSlicka, Jairo’s art account

When this parole supervision is over, I want him to go away because he can’t get better here, the environment is the same. 

In 2019, Jairo finished serving his sentence, and he decided to go back to college. He had tried to continue his studies after being transferred to Auburn Correctional Facility, the prison upstate, but they told him they only offered courses to get the high school diploma, and the four years he had left in prison were not enough to apply for the college program, get accepted, and complete the courses. Thus, when he got out of jail, he started studying again, and after two and a half years, he graduated from college, making his mother extremely proud for being able to get back to study after everything he had been through. 

Years later, there are still many obstacles Jairo has to overcome, as he is having a hard time finding a job due to his criminal record. During his five-year post-release supervision, he had to abide by very strict rules. One of them consisted of a curfew at 8 p.m., and parole officers that could ring at his door at any time and send him back to jail if he wasn’t home. “My son is so paranoid that he’s home by seven,” Anna said. Another controversial rule concerned not having any kind of police contact. Once, Jairo got a ticket for passing at a red light on his bicycle and was terrified by the possible consequences that the encounter with the police would have. Luckily, his parole supervisor was magnanimous and pardoned the police contact because it only concerned a bicycle ticket. 

Rikers left a permanent mark on Jairo. Since he got out, Anna noticed that he has had a lot of phobias. He cannot have anyone walking behind him without getting anxious because in Rikers the corridors were the most dangerous places, with the risk of fights breaking out at any point, and doesn’t feel comfortable taking public transportation, so he goes around with his bicycle and roller blades in order to be fast and have the possibility to run away if he finds himself in an unsafe situation. However, a new legislation called the Less Is More Act was recently passed by the newly elected governor of New York, Kathy Hochul. According to this bill, people on post-release supervision and parole who abide by the terms of their sentence will have their parole reduced proportionally to the days they served without any violation or incident.  

The Less Is More Act meant good news for Jairo. He had already completed three of the five years of post-release supervision, and in June, he received the news that his supervision was over. He was finally free. Anna said he couldn’t wait to go back to Italy after more than 15 years of not being able to do so. His plan was to visit his grandmother, who had been very ill, and reconnect with his family, so he applied for his passport immediately. 

I started looking around, getting involved in some organizations because I didn’t know how I was going to fight this monstrosity. 

Throughout the years her son was incarcerated, Anna got involved with several organizations committed to closing Rikers. It all started when Glen Martin, founder of JustLeadership USA, asked Anna to speak in front of the City Hall, telling her son’s story and asking for Rikers to be closed. Back then, people did not believe there was any chance Rikers would ever close, but the advocates for closing Rikers proved them wrong. It was one of the first rallies of the Close Rikers Campaign, and, in 2019, former Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council approved the plan to close Rikers by 2026 and build four smaller jails near the courts. A plan that has already been delayed to 2027

Anna testifying for the City Council Preliminary Budget hearings 
Picture from Freedom Agenda 

The main problem that remains, according to Anna, is the creation of these borough jails because the people who live close to the courts, especially in Chinatown, do not want the jails to be near their homes. However, having jails in the city would be beneficial for several reasons. To start with, the fact that Rikers is situated on an island makes it completely detached from the outside world, which increases the isolation of the detainees from their families, discourages the lawyers from meeting their clients, and perpetrates the culture of violence and inhumanity that reigns in Rikers. In addition, even though some money would have to be invested in the creation of the new jails, there would be significant savings in the future, considering the millions of dollars spent transporting the detainees from Rikers to the courts every time they have a hearing.  

Anna also became part of other groups that were brainstorming what to do with Rikers once it closed. At first, they approached LaGuardia Airport to inquire if they were interested in expanding on that territory, but they weren’t. Then the groups realized that the best purpose for Rikers Island would be to produce renewable energy for New York City. The island would be perfect for the installation of solar panels and wind turbines, and since it’s surrounded by water, it could also take advantage of it to produce hydroelectric power, while the infrastructures could be fixed and used for waste composting and management. A plan was proposed by the organization Renewable Rikers to turn this horrific island into a restorative land that favors a just climate transition. At the same time, people who lost their lives in Rikers and the atrocities that were committed cannot be forgotten, so Anna and Jairo also participated in the Rikers Public Memory Project, giving some ideas on the creation of a memorial on Rikers Island once the jails cease to exist. 

I started doing this work after he was already locked for five years, so I didn’t really help him, but I need to help the others because this cannot repeat. 

Anna continues to be at the forefront of the fight to close Rikers and build the borough jails. She also works at the state level, traveling to Albany with other advocates in the attempt to change the legislation and fix the dysfunctionalities of the criminal justice system, beginning with the malfunctioning of speedy trials. She firmly believes that jails should aim at rehabilitating the incarcerated people in order to reinsert them into society once they have served their sentence, which is why the borough jails should not be built like Rikers. They should have large spaces, windows, air circulation, color, and programs that the detainees can join. Anna argues that, in the United States, there is a mentality of punishment that condemns people forever for a single mistake they made, and jails like Rikers perfectly embrace and propagate this mentality. Closing Rikers not only will put an end to a human rights crisis that has been perpetuated for far too long but will also be a decisive step toward changing this mentality and allowing people to have a second chance. 

Jairo Pastoressa 
Photo by Francesca Magnani 

Black and white photos, including the feature image, are courtesy of the talented photographer Tomas Mantilla. Click here to see more of his work.