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ÓNow groups of twenty to thirty prisoners file in silence by the barred gates. They make their way toward the reception roomsÓIt's a series of rooms that are bright, but not at all pleasant.
[Guests at Rikers Island Prison]
Gelatin silver print
6 1/2 x 4 7/16 ins
Courtesy of the Lucien Aigner Estate
ÓNow groups of twenty to thirty prisoners file in silence by the barred gates. They make their way toward the reception roomsÓIt's a series of rooms that are bright, but not at all pleasant. There is a long, wide corridor separated in two by a wall. All along the wall are cellsÓEach prisoner can see his visitor, but he can only communicate with him or her by way of a minuscule hole covered several times in metallic mesh. It's a sort of ill-suited telephone and the whole system does not resemble in the least the reception rooms of the prisons one sees in the movies.
The photo story "Guests at Rikers Island Prison" was published in 1937 in L'IllustrÚ (Zofingen), Pesti Naplˇ (Budapest), Picture Post (London), and Weekly Illustrated (London).
"ÓJust a few years ago, this island was the landfill for the metropolis of skyscrapers. Its giant mountains, of which we can make out their silhouettes, are made of nothing but filth and any man who would lay down on its banks for a nighttime nap would quickly fall prey to the monstrous rats who still share the ownership of this island with city of New York. But today, the city of New York has constructed a prison here that, as we learned over the course of our visit, holds many surprises for those who make the effort to get to know it. Rikers Island is the "luxury prison" of New York.
ÓAnd over the course of my tour, I will capture with my camera the private life of this curious prisonÓ
We pass by long, luminous corridors that resemble those of a clinic. Large windows allow great streams of light to enter and the stone floor, like a mirror, reflects the sun against a bright and smooth wallÓ
The alarm announces lunchtime. In silent groups the prisoners make their way toward the tables where fellow inmates, dressed in white, distribute the food. It is forbidden to chatter during meals. It is there that one begins to feel as if they were in prison; for the discipline of Rikers Island is strict despite the overall appearance of luxury and comfort. But the food given to prisoners is excellent. We tasted it there. It's appetizing, healthy and goodÓ
The Negro (Black) prisoners do not mix with the Whites. They eat separately but in the same room. The guards pass back and forth between the two camps during the meals.
With a discreet gesture, our guide shows us the surveillance tower where, behind unbreakable glass, a guard follows the eyes of the groups who eat in silence. The slightest suspicious gesture, the slightest noise and the thirty tear gas bombs that hang over the silent prisoners would be projected into the roomÓ
ÓBut why would the inhabitants of Rikers Island want to desert their "home"?Ó
Ó'It's not exactly a paradise,' Mr. McGee, the director of Rikers Island, tells us. 'We only try to make the lives of the inmates as humane as possible'Ó
Ó'Don't believe that our "angelic" methods exclude discipline. For those who don't obey, we reserve other, less gentle, means. We have, for example, some inmates who are genuine troublemakersÓThose ones live in isolation and are deprived of the little pleasures that help the others pass the time more quickly. They can't take part in games or in exercise organized for those who are "well-behaved." We even go so far as to deprive someone of food for some 24 hours.'
Rikers Island is a model prison where only first-time offenders, drunks, blossoming pickpockets and the occasional burglar go. No tried and true criminals, no con artists, no murderers. The inmates are released at the end of three to four years. But after all of this, is it surprising that at the end of a few months they come back again!"
(Selected text from the article translated by Amy Sweeney.)