Captives:How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage

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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

Captives combines a thrilling narrative account of Rikers Island’s descent into infamy with a dramatic retelling of the last seventy years of New York and American politics from the vantage point of its jails. It is a story of a crowded field of contending powers–city bureaucrats and unions, black power activists and correction offices, crooked cops and elected leaders– struggle for the right to run our cities, a story that culminates in the triumph of of the twin figures we today call neoliberalism and mass incarceration. It is the history of how the Rikers Island of today–and the social order it represents–came to be.

With a sweeping vision and an often cinematic touch, Captives records how the tempo of history was set by the metronome of bloody and bruising clashes between corrections officers and prisoners, and between police officers and virtually everyone else. Written by a one-time inmate, Captives draws on extensive archival research, decades of journalism, interviews, prisoner testimonials, and firsthand experience to deliver an urgent intervention into our nationwide conversation about the future of mass incarceration.


  • Rikers Island has the same relationship to New York as his picture did to Dorian Gray in the famous story by Oscar Wilde: the notorious super-jail is the grotesque face of the institutional cruelty and racism that lies behind so much of the Big Apple's preening dazzle. Shanahan, who personally experienced Rikers' violence, has crafted a masterpiece of synthesized social observation, analytic history and political critique. Now that the city has a new mayor who loudly champions the jailers and bad cops, Captives is urgent and obligatory reading.

    Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz and Planet of Slums
  • Captives reveals the long history of racial oppression and unaccountable violence in the Rikers Island jail complex that has been hidden in plain sight. . .This extraordinary book demonstrates the centrality of jails to urban life and power in New York City

    Mathew Lassiter, author of The Silent Majority
  • Captives is more than a history of the notorious Rikers Island; it is a riveting, caged bird's eye view of the tumultuous shift from postwar liberal dreams of penal reform to neoliberal punishment, police power, and the rise of the carceral state. Ultimately, it is a book about class struggle - how we got from build better to lock 'em up to shut it down.

    Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original