This is the second of six reviews chronicling the pseudonymous Fred S. Kreider’s Rikers Island Series, a horror franchise set on present-day Rikers Island. In the first installment we met narrator Nicholas Billings, a rookie guard whose scrupulous recounting of guard life at Rikers is often more grim and terrifying than the book’s horror story, constituting detailed workplace writing evincing an intimate knowledge of the island’s institutional life.
Kreider’s series, fusing as it does the horrific and the banal to the point of indistinction, stands as symptomatic of the present juncture facing Rikers Island and mass incarceration as a whole. It is a historical moment when the practice of wholesale human caging, for decades the quintessential American policy for addressing racial and economic inequality, becomes ever more discredited and despised, perhaps especially by those who must inhabit its facilities on both sides of the bars. Meanwhile, a practicable alternative has yet to emerge, as the social costs of mass incarceration amass and demand decisive action. “The crisis,” writes Gramsci, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
“Something terrible is happening underneath Rikers Island.”
In Attack on Rikers Island (Corporate Cult Press, 2018), we find Correction Officer Nicholas Billings back from two months of paid administrative leave following his killing of supernatural serial killer Norman Henkes at the conclusion of Storm on Rikers Island. As Henkes had promised, the murder appeared strictly “by the book,” and the case never even made it to a grand jury. In the process, Henkes’s spirit was able to escape from Rikers, transmogrifying into the figure of a young boy visiting his incarcerated father, whose mother was apprehended after smuggling razor blades into Rikers in her infant’s diaper. At the conclusion of Storm, Henkes assured Billings that he has not heard the last of the evil now encased in a small boy thanks to Rikers Island. Yet, Attack on Rikers Island is not concerned with this future. Instead, Billings and company find themselves laid siege upon by the past.
“There’s a horrible stench blanketing Rikers Island, especially during the summertime,” Billing recounts forebodingly. “No one who lives or works there can escape it. Some say it smells like fertilizer. Some say it smells like an open sewer. I think it smells like death. But what we really are smelling is garbage. Over 130 years of rotting garbage.” This is because Rikers Island is not much of an island at all. It’s mostly a landfill.
The story of the island’s creation is in many ways stranger than even supernatural fiction, as Jayne Mooney and I have recently recounted in a reconstruction of prisoner life on the island for the three decades prior to its traditionally recognized birth as a penal colony. Mooney and I detail how the construction of Rikers by dangerous forced labor, and the forced confinement of its prisoner-workers on a putrid landfill that offended nostrils for miles, was made even more miserable by the presence of massive rats, numbering in the millions, immune to “flames, poison, gas, bullets and other means to exterminate them.” The island’s rats resisted numerous innovative attempts to wipe them out, including the release of wild dogs and cats, and even an aborted plan to cover the island with snakes. What better avatar, then, exists for over a century of human misery congealed on this wretched island, than these ineradicable rats? In Attack on Rikers Island, the island’s rats wreak havoc on the orderly operation of the facility, making the one thing Billings covets above all – a quiet day administering mass incarceration – completely impossible.
Back from administrative leave, Billings is still disallowed from working at the Central Punitive Segregation Unit (CPSU), where he killed Henkes. Instead he works in a large dormitory, used in jails across the island for prisoners with lower security classifications. “The dormitory housing area was just what it sounds like,” Billings recounts, “a warehouse for discarded humans. It was one enormous room containing sixty stationary steel frame beds lined up in three rows.” Prisoners stay in these dormitories for most of the day, usually leaving only for meals, or, in the institutional parlance, “feeding.” “Like we are working in a zoo and about to throw scraps of food over the railing to caged animals,” Billings observes. “Which, I suppose, is not so far from the truth.”
Billings describes an average day working in Rikers Island’s dormitories: “I dealt with issues ranging from picking up a new pair of sneakers at Intake for someone whose shoes had fallen apart to filling out a work order for a clogged toilet. And the complaints were constant: the water in the shower was too hot, too cold, not enough soap, no toilet paper. Every second of every day, an inmate needed something. They needed to see a social worker, needed to go to make-up commissary, needed to make a phone call, needed new batteries in the television remote. Eight hours of one petty problem after another.” Most of this work, he reminds the prisoners, is voluntary; in supporting an absolute minimum standard of dignity for the island’s prisoners, Billings is not responding to any pressing imperative intrinsic to his job, but instead, his own personal wishes to be a good guy.
Moreover, while Billings prides himself in paying special attention to the needs of prisoners, which he has no particular responsibility to meet, the procession of “one petty problem after another” – issues of great importance to prisoners, with practically no recourse save for appealing to the good will of guards – stands at odds with the myriad requirements of the job. “Not only did I have to deal with relentless waves of complaints and demands,” Billings recounts, “I had logbook entries to make. I had security inspections to perform. I had to complete mandatory walking tours every thirty minutes. I also had to answer the phone and write dozens of hall passes for trips to the law library, recreation in the yard, barbershop visits, clinic visits, and more. Plus I had a few dozen more official duties, and just as many forms to fill out every shift. And that was just on a peaceful, boring day. God forbid anything interesting happened.”
“Interesting” is to put it lightly. As Billings chips away at his daily routine, making the best of a bad situation, he seeks only to do as much good as he can, and still return home unscathed to his expectant wife in New Rochelle. But crisis builds on the horizon. As in the prior novel, it all begins with a natural disaster. This time torrential rain floods the island and make the city’s streets increasingly impassible. Dutifully trekking to East Elmhurst from New Rochelle via obscure backroads, Billings anticipates he will be stuck working overtime, as less dedicated guards call out of work, sticking their more responsible colleagues with interminable shifts. He is correct. What he fails to anticipate is the answer to question puzzling his coworkers for some time: where have all the rats gone?
The rats, Billings soon learns, have taken refuge in the island’s underground tunnels and forgotten basements. But these are not the same rats you can spot crisscrossing the city’s subway tracks. Methane gas from the island’s landfill, part and parcel of its legacy of miserable forced labor, has endowed these rats with pernicious mutation: they have grown to the size of dogs, and have acquired massive, bulging brains, bespeaking their newfound intelligence. They have also learned how to work in groups, and how to effectively kill human beings by targeting their softest tissue. As the rain floods the island’s jails, and ultimately makes its sole bridge impassible, it also draws the rats from their subterranean lairs in search of new turf. “They’ve been working together,” one guard observes, “like a gang. Maybe they think we’re in a goddamn turf war with ‘em. They’re Bloods. We’re Crips.”
It begins with isolated oddities. Large piles of feces appear in hallways, which the guards waste no time blaming on prisoners. Then it shows up on the floor of the captains’ locker room. “What did I tell you?” one guard remarks. “This place has real class.” When a Latin Kings leader awakens to find his foot horribly mauled, his comrades immediately blame it on a Blood who had been sent to the King-dominated dormitory as payback by a malevolent guard. The suspected attacker is viciously beaten in retaliation, and everybody involved is brutalized by the island’s guards. It’s only remarked as an afterthought that the injury does not appear to be made by a blade, but by the teeth of a large mammal. Oh well. So far, nothing too out of the ordinary.
As his own suspicion mounts, however, Billings surmises his superiors know more than they are letting on. But it’s not until the rats descend en masse from the basement, and begin devouring helpless prisoners in their cells, that the higher-ups fess up to what is going on. And by then, it is too late. Everywhere prisoners and guards are mauled and disfigured by the army of murderous rats. The bombshell McDonough, Billings’ workplace crush from the first book, is felled when the rats go straight for her Achilles tendon, and consume her alive as soon as she hits the ground. While Kreider saves his best writing for the ordinary annoyances of guard life, the explosive mayhem of the rodent insurrection is recounted with ghoulish glee bespeaking the repressed desire to see one’s workplace in ruin.
The contrast of banal and horrific – often amounting to not much of a contrast at all – that defines the first book recurs in the dramatic unfolding of the war between humans and rats for control of the jail. Toons, a guard who relishes in taking a much time as possible to unlock a door for his colleagues, refuses to open a gate for them as they flee the rats, even though it represents little peril to his own safety. Ordinarily, Billings recounts, “because he had been working at Rikers for almost twenty years, he was making twice as much money as I was… getting top pay to sit next to a locked gated and act like a prick.” The lack of solidarity Toons displays in banal day-to-day work, rooted in the selfish enjoyment of workplace seniority, assumes fateful seriousness in a moment of crisis.
The same goes for guards’ relations to prisoners – who Kreider flirts with comparing to the rat insurrection, especially through the analogy to prisoner gangs. As the jail is overrun, placing the guards and prisoners in equal peril, the guards remain obsessed with preserving the power relation underlying the reality of daily life there. “If the inmates realize how bad things are,” Billings concludes, “how weak the department is right now, they could riot and take over the entire building. We couldn’t stop them and fight the rats at the same time.”
Even the endless mill of paperwork, a central focus of Storm on Rikers Island, must continue unabated. But here, Billings receives a brief respite. “I’ll need you to write up an incident report detailing what you just told us,” a captain tells Billings, upon his return from mortal combat in the rat’s subterranean lair. “But since the building is in a state of emergency, the paperwork can wait until the crisis is over.” Billings reflects: “I was thankful that at least one captain was showing the smallest amount of common sense. I could just imagine being eaten alive by rats while filling out a bunch of forms.”
Yet, in order to defeat the rats, Billings and his fellow guard keep the prisoners disempowered and in the dark about what is going on. This means keeping them locked inside their cells, even while rats roam freely in the heating system, eviscerating captives at will. “There is just no way we have enough officers and weapons to safely escort all the prisoners in this jail to secure locations,” a captain tells Billings. “And if we just started releasing inmates from their cells and dormitories, we’d risk completely losing control of the jail and putting all the officers here at risk.”
The guards’ stubborn chain of command among themselves similarly survives the disaster. As bodies amass in the hundreds, rank-and-filers face death oblivious to the plans of their superiors. Finding himself the sole guard below the rank of captain in a strategy meeting filled with clueless and defeated superiors, Billings learns the confusion stems from there being no plan at all. When the jail administrators’ specialty – thinking inside the box – fails, Billings makes a ghastly proposition. The gymnasium they have converted into a makeshift morgue, he argues, can be used to draw the ravenous rodents into a trap, using the dead bodies of prisoners and guards alike as bait. “It sucks,” Billings concedes, “but they like to eat people.” Once lured to the gymnasium, they can be drenched in gasoline and set on fire.
“You want me to authorize you to blow up the gymnasium?” an exasperated warden asks Billings.
“Not blow it up,” he clarifies. “Just burn it down.”
There will be fire set to the prisons, after all… but under the control of jail administrators, in defense of the status quo. With Billings’ plan in motion, the concluding action scenes are perfunctory. The rats are soaked in gasoline from above, and the final conflagration ignited by a “blast dispersion dust grenade,” ordinarily used to disperse rebellious prisoners. At once, the rain stops. “Rain had descended from the heavens,” Billings concludes, “and summoned an army of demons from under the earth. Now, the rat’s ashes ascended back up to the heavens, along with the ashes of our human dead. The gods were appeased. We had been spared.” At great human cost, Rikers Island has preserved itself, and with it, Billings’ hope of a quiet work day guarding a penal colony tantamount to, as my friend Jack Norton first pointed out to me, a warehouse of discarded humans on an island of discarded trash.
But we haven’t heard the last from Norman Henkes. In the final scene of Attack on Rikers Island, as Billings rushes to greet the birth of his son, Henkes appears in the form of a five-year-old-child made evil by Rikers Island. Despite the momentary return to order secured by the defeat of the mutant rodent insurrection, Billings isn’t rid of Henkes, and he surely isn’t free of Rikers Island.
Jarrod Shanahan is a criminologist, an editor of Hard Crackers, and co-author, with Jayne Mooney, of Rikers: A Social History of New York City’s Island of the Poor, forthcoming from Temple University Press in 2020.