4 Seasons in Rikers Island Garden - (from left) fall, winter, spring and summer on greenhouse pathway.
The bridge is more than just a well-constructed link between the Borough of Queens and Rikers Island.
Only two miles long, inmates call this “the longest bridge in the world,” one, they claim, “takes minutes to cross over but years to cross back.”
From its 100-foot rise above the water, there are sweeping views of Flushing Bay, the runways of LaGuardia Airport and the gleaming skyline of Manhattan.
As the bridge dips and Rikers approaches, one has the physical sensation of leaving a familiar place for a secretive and altogether separate world—one surrounded by water, double rows of electronic fences, metal gates and razor wire.
A cold wind whips off the bay and hammers the car as it pulls to the gate for final clearance onto the Island.
The island, one of the largest penal colonies in the world, rests exposed . . . like a floating barge subject to the wind and biting cold that sweeps off the water.
Drifts of snow are piled on the curbsides and along the median of Hazen Street, the Island’s main road.
Yet in scattered patches on the median and by the entrance of the island’s jails, tip of green stalks are emerging— the first hint of daffodils and crocuses, which, each year, like silent troubadours, herald the arrival of spring and the hope of new life.
Few people entering Rikers bother with the subtle signs of nature, least of all the inmates, most of whom -- apart from their allotted hour in a trampled grass yard -- rarely see the outside of jail.
But each working day for the past eight years I have crossed the bridge onto Rikers Island to do exactly that: engage inmates with their natural world by growing plants and building gardens.
Enclosed within a metal maze of gates, fences and razor wire is a greenhouse surrounded by two acres of cultivable land where I teach horticulture to men and women inmates.
The idea is to provide prisoners with job and life skills, some scientific knowledge and on-going therapy working with plants and animals in the hope they can redirect their lives through meaningful work.
Our program, which includes hiring inmates or helping them find jobs after their release, aims to break the vicious cycle of recidivism, by most counts as high as 65% in the New York City jail system.
I give my clearance number to the officer manning the last gate onto the island and am waved through, passing the median strip on Hazen Street on one side, and ARDC—the Adolescent Reception and Detention Center—on my right, which, as its name implies, houses up to 2,500 adolescent males.
With me is John Cannizzo. An artist, gardener and former book illustrator, Cannizzo is employed by HSNY as a gardening instructor, carpenter and job coordinator working with inmates both on and off Rikers Island. . . .
His role is critical, for while many inmates harbor solid dreams and aspirations inside jail, once released, they are faced with the same issues that led to their arrest. . . .
John is a one-person after-care program.
With persistence and a telephone he connects inmates to agencies that provide housing or drug care, or places them directly in jobs, in school, or in vocational training programs.
He helps them secure identification or a driver’s license, write a resume, clear up old student loans or secure new ones.
He gets to know their mothers, sisters, husbands, wives, children and employers.
Every three months he calls to see how they are doing, whether an agency followed through with housing, or whether a job was offered after he'd set an interview. .
We pull onto Shore Road, a narrow two—lane drive that hugs the steep coastline on the Island's northern edge, and park by a row of trailers perched on a small cliff above the water.
The trailers house various administrative offices for the Department of Correction, including
Ask many native New Yorkers where Rikers is and they usually point to Randalls Island . . .
Others mistake it for Hart Island in the Bronx, better known as Potters Field, a place where the city buries its unclaimed dead using inmate crews from Rikers.
Synonymous as it is with the term “jail,” many residents don’t realize that Rikers Island is an actual island, owned by the City of New York since 1884, when it was purchased for $180,000 . . . . and used as a farm to feed the city’s jail population.
The [Rikers Penitentiary] was built on the island in 1936, and filled with inmates transferred from the city penitentiary on [Welfare Island, formerly] Blackwell’s Island (known today as Roosevelt Island) in the East River.
Over the next 40 years, dredging and landfill increased the size of the island from 87 to 415 acres. Additional jails were built, creating a large complex of separate facilities including
In addition to housing inmates, Rikers, over the years
The greenhouse and gardens sit on almost two acres of land inside a double row of fencing adjacent to the Rose M. Singer House for Women.
There are two ways to approach the greenhouse.
With proper clearance, one can simply enter the woman’s jail, pass through a maze of corridors and gates, to reach a small side door which leads outside to a fenced-in pathway. The path leads to wide double fence gate and into the garden.
Male inmates, for obvious reasons, are driven to the greenhouse on an access road that winds behind the recreation field of C-73 [George Motchan Detention Center], a medium security facility for men, and a row of plastic dome structures called sprungs—used to house inmates in a drug program—to the greenhouse corridor right behind the woman’s jail.
Although the greenhouse can be seen from Shore Road as well as from the women’s jail parking lot, only a handful of the 5,000 officers and civilians who work on Rikers ever visit it, and most hardly know it exists.
First-time visitors entering the gates are visibly surprised at the extent of gardens in the complex. For inmates, it is an oasis.
Six years of creative work and input by over 350 inmates have helped transform a flat weedy field into a labyrinth of different gardens, a small emerging woodland and a waterfall and pond complex.
Nothing here is static. As the inmates come and go they add their own distinctive touches to the landscape.
A succession of women inmates designed and built a raised herb garden using Belgian blocks that were donated by a federal prison in Georgia. Brick and stone pathways connect gardens through archways and trellises constructed by another group of student inmates. . . .
Many of the sites were simply designed and planted with what one designer friend calls the "point and shoot method." For our purpose it works.
With creative use of space, some design aesthetics, a knowledge of plants and with whatever materials are available on Rikers, the students work at filling the gaps between each garden, fine-tuning the sites already developed, and adding embellishing details to create a harmonious and continually emerging landscape.
The impact is more than visual.
As habitats for birds, insects, and reptiles develop, as plants naturalize and spread through the gardens. as trees mature to form new structures and micro-climates, and as diversity increases, the garden transforms into a complex of interdependent plant, animal and human relationships.
Our job is to help inmates understand and explore these relationships as a way of creating profound connection to both nature and their community.
Rikers family farm & Municipal Farm
Land Tilling & Landfilling
Eggery, piggery & tree nursery
Trees go but vegs & flowers linger.
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