Register Tuesday | March 20 | 2018

The Rikers Island Guide to the Economy

What the world’s largest penal colony can teach us about easy money, low rollers, and the current finanical crisis

Rhason Burke had a strategy to beat this recession—petty theft. At his peak, the Brooklyn resident earned $500 a week stealing and selling shampoos, facial creams, deodorants and other household products. He began eight months ago, after work at his catering job slowed down, approaching “boosting” like a part-time job.

“I could have gone out and got a part-time job at McDonald’s,” the college-educated Burke said. “I chose fast money. I did it six days a week, everyday except Sunday.” Burke, who thinks the Wall Street bailout was a “necessary evil,” predicts the recession will last at least four years.

His side gig will not. His flirtation with criminal enterprise, he said, ended when police arrested him. He spent a week at Rikers before being released, taking the Q100 back to Queens and a legitimate, if not as lucrative, lifestyle.

The Q100 bus runs a three-mile route between Long Island City, Queens, and the world’s largest penal colony—Rikers Island—seven days a week. Nominally part of the Bronx but connected to Queens by a long, undistinguished bridge, the island holds 10 facilities with about 10,000 prisoners. For most passengers, the route begins and ends near a thatch of elevated subway lines, expressways and down-market eateries at the Queensboro Bridge.

Q100 riders are a mix of released prisoners, visitors, attorneys, social workers, probation officers and prison guards—all of whom have a unique glimpse at the hardships of New York’s underclass, who dominate the prison population. Most inmates have been arrested for non-violent drug crime. “The people on Wall St. should spend a year on Rikers Island,” said Siobhan Morris, a counselor with the Legal Aid Society of New York. “A guy takes a million dollars and blows it. A guy who steals makeup, he’s at Rikers,” she said, riding the bus after a morning session at the prison.

Like Morris, many of the bus’ riders are concerned about the economy. Almost all of them hope Obama wins, and is able to turn it around. As the bus crosses the bridge over Rikers Island channel, the view of planes leaving nearby LaGuardia Airport seems tantalizingly close. At its nearest point, Rikers is only 270 feet away from the runways.

Eric Richardson, a former cook, said his brother’s wife was laid off from her job with a shipping company at John F. Kennedy airport. His cousin, who works in advertising, has seen his hours cut. For Richardson, his Q100 commute to work won’t change soon. He works as a guard in the facility, and they are always hiring, he said. A steady influx of prisoners—hundreds a day—means job security, no matter who wins the election.

“McCain thinks like Bush,” Richardson said. “If he gets in, things are going to stay the way they are or get worse. People get laid off. Crime rate goes up.” Rikers, he said, is a softer option than the street for many inmates, with free television, food, clothes and telephones. For guards, he said, the pay and benefits are good, even if they have to occasionally endure inmates who throw excrement and try to urinate on them. The work provides some “excitement,” he said, as the bus passed a row of shuttered warehouses.

Though the bus charts a course parallel to the East River waterfront, it is well removed from its counterparts across the water that plod through Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side. It carries only about 2,500 passengers a day, said an MTA spokesman, in contrast with the 50,000 that the M15 takes up and down the East Side. The Q100 has a rhythm of its own. On Mondays and Tuesdays, when Rikers prohibits visitors, the Q100 is relatively quiet. Most riders those days are prisoners picking up property, and workers going to and from the facilities. The rest of the week, the bus teems with family and girlfriends visiting prisoners, said driver Jeff Hacknan, 49.

The bus makes only three stops, and the driver discourages casual riders from boarding. A middle-aged woman looking to get from Long Island City to Astoria backed down the steps quickly when she heard the bus’ destination.

“Most of the people in there are very poor people,” Hacknan said. He has been working the route for about eight years. One woman visiting an inmate, 33-year-old Kozel (she declined to give her last name), seconded that assessment. She said she feels sorry for people who are really struggling, since she herself has had to cut back on even staples, cutting breakfast cereal out of her diet. As a bus driver, Hacknan earns a steady wage, but still worries about the election and this economy. “Whoever comes in there better do a better job than the one we got now. I’ve got two kids and I’ve got to pay for college,” he said. “The college fund isn’t what it used to be.”

Though the economy is flagging everywhere, and most passengers agreed that the mood in the jail is depressing, the atmosphere on the bus remained hopeful.“The economy, it sucks. The election, it’s great. Obama is going to win,” social worker Tracy Cole said. “He’s smart, and he cares about the working class.”

Emily Bell, an intern at the Legal Aid Society of New York, agreed. She is confident Obama will be able to regulate the economy. It almost goes without saying that McCain’s traditional voter base is not well represented in either the jail, or among the social workers and guards who staff it.

Rhason Burke, the caterer turned part-time crook, is an Obama supporter himself. He too sees brighter times ahead, though probably not in New York. The 7 train was shrieking on an elevated track above as he got off the bus to board a subway near Queens Plaza. Whether America chooses Obama or McCain, he plans to move to quieter digs in Georgia or Virginia, or North Carolina. “I pay a thousand dollars a month to live in the hood,” he said. “I guess that’s what it costs, here in the ‘greatest city in the world.’“


Richard Vanderford is a New York-based freelancer. He has written for Sharp Magazine, the Calgary Herald and the Daily News.