He Kidnapped Black People, Then They Named This Jail After Him

illustration of richard riker
Zain Murdock
October 17, 2022

From COVID-19 to unbelievably filthy facilities to deaths, the 2021 human rights crisis at Rikers Island was so bad they even called on the White House for help. But in order to understand this NYC jail’s horrors, we have to go back to the 1800s, to this jail’s unsurprising roots in slavery.  

And this name: Richard Riker.

Magistrate Richard Riker owned the island after his Dutch relative Abraham Rycken bought it a couple centuries back. And what was he known for? Using the Fugitive Slave Act to run the pro-slavery anti-Black “Kidnapping Club.”

It didn’t matter if a Black person was free or not. When they were captured, and brought before Riker in court, he was responsible for deporting them to the South before they could even get a lawyer or witness to testify that they were free! 

And, of course, being a member of this “club” helped line his pockets.

Today, with eerie similarity, Black people are the main demographic of Rikers Island. 85% are simply locked up while awaiting trial, often because they can’t afford bail.

When we say we want to challenge the system, it serves us to know its history. Incarceration has always been rooted in anti-Black brutality. We can’t change that through incremental or reformative change – it needs to be pulled up and destroyed from the root.

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