Rikers Island | About the World’s Largest Jail

by Denise Marie

Rikers Island in New York City is considered the world’s largest penal colony. This notorious jail occupies the entire 1600 km2 island after which it is named and is home to over 130,000 inmates on an annual basis.

To keep these prisoners in line, the New York City Department of Correction – with a budget of over $850 million – employs 10,000 police officers and hundreds of civilians.


Rikers Island prison was established in 1884, after the city purchased the island from the descendants of an original Dutch settler to the area, Abraham Rycken in the 1700’s. The city paid $183,000 for the island and set about immediately converting it to an incarceration facility.

Landfill was added to the island in the 1950s in a bid to expand the existing space. In recent years, in order to cater to the growing demand for prisons in the New York City area, extra inmates began their incarceration in new facilities built on an eight hundred bed barge that was constructed in the East River.

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Rikers Island Facilities

Rikers Island has come to be known as a city within a city, with nearly 20,000 people present on the island on any given day. There are ten jails that make up this facility, each housing different criminal types. The majority of the jails have been built in the last seventy years, with several of them being floating detention centers constructed from original Staten Island ferries.

What used to be known as the Rikers Island Infirmary now houses special case prisoners, including those who are going through detoxification, those who are mentally ill and those who require special health treatment.

In order to serve the needs of the visitors and staff on Rikers Island, many facilities have been set up, including clinics, schools, religious institutions, supermarkets, sports fields and barbershops.

Reaching Rikers Island

To reach Rikers Island visitors have various options. Passengers could take the Q101 Express bus, also known as the Steinway Transport Corporation bus that is marked Rikers Island Limited Stop Service.

The Q101 bus service departs from the south end of the Plaza on 27th and 28th Streets, making its last stop on 19th Avenue. The bus then heads onto an unmarked bridge, known as the Francis Buona Bridge.

There are also several privately owned ferry services that take visitors to and from the island, while the Corrections Department provides transportation for those visiting inmates on the island.

While it is possible to reach the Rikers Island parking lot by car, this is generally not encouraged because of the lack of parking space in the area.

Visiting Rikers Island NYC

Rikers Island is part of New York City’s less glamorous landscape but still manages to instill a lot of curiosity and interest among visitors and locals alike. While city authorities prefer to keep the facility away from the public eye, the irony is that Rikers Island is on of the first things that visitors see from the air when they fly into La Guardia airport.

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