We set off in the canoe around noon, at the mouth of a filthy creek in Queens, intent on circumnavigating Rikers Island, the largest prison complex in North America. It was an act of protest, a symbolic gesture, an allegorical feat, whatever you want to call it, but also an attempt, in a physical way, to get a grasp on what we were up against. We wanted to see the beast from all sides, to complete a loop, to call it a drawing, and to gesture toward the tens of thousands of souls locked inside—to see if it was even possible.
The cover story was that we were just canoeing. That’s it, we decided. Keep it simple. Don’t say too much. We unloaded the canoe from Lech’s van at a dead end street in an unknown part of Queens. The creek was accessible from a gap between a scaffolding yard and a concrete factory. Some kids chased each other around the stacks of metal bars and there was even a goat tied up to a fence. In the middle of the creek lay a huge decaying barge. Lech got in the canoe and I pushed off and hopped in the back. After a few minutes of paddling we emerged into the East River. I could feel the wind whipping away the toxic fumes of the creek.
From a distance, hugging the flat terrain, Riker’s looked benign. The buildings could have almost been schools, or a dingy condo development. The sky was clear. It was a Sunday in early September. We figured the trip would take no more than two hours. The air was exceedingly crisp. We were both wearing warm shirts, life vests, and Rikers was still vague. It wasn’t until we paddled up to a buoy, caked in seagull shit, and marked with a hand-painted RI, that the reality of the penal colony we were paddling towards began to set in.
We hung on to the buoy and it let out a clang. Otherwise it was the sound of open water, some planes, and the white noise of the city. It was impossible to make sense of the currents. There was a steady wind from the North. Hanging on to the buoy, I felt something weak in my stomach—could the clang have been a warning? But still, it was exceptionally nice out. The air was brackish and crisp. I could almost forget what we had come to do. Our cover story was feeble but maybe we wouldn’t need it. We’re some canoers who got lost. That’s it. No mentioning art. No mentioning Rikers. Nothing intellectual. Nothing superfluous. We snapped a Polaroid and we pushed off the buoy, following our route for the South Brother Island Channel.
Canoeing in New York City is work. There’s nothing Huck Finn-like about it. The currents of the East River are shifty and unpredictable. And yet, two people with two paddles, paddling hard, is often enough to get from one point to another. Though it depends on what time of day. The East River tide chart is basically indecipherable without a nautical background.
As it turns out, the East River isn’t really a river; it’s a tidal strait. It’s water that swells back and forth between two bays. And with the exception of the Bronx, New York City is all islands. The geography of it snaps into focus from the water: the natural harbors and miles of shoreline.
The vast scale of the waters and the city, the bridges and barges in the distance, made the canoe feel like a tiny cork bobbing around in a giant’s landscape. It was remarkable that we could negotiate it at all. But there was also an element of danger that drawing a line on Google Maps had not prepared us for. The choppy water was very real. I dipped my hand in it, wiped my brow, and kept rowing. Lech was in the zone.
We paddled toward the Bronx, keeping our distance from Rikers, but staying in proximity to it. We paddled past the ruins of North Brother, further into the bay. Whenever a big ship would pass, we would have to wait and steer into the wake or risk capsizing. For the first leg, we kept at least a thousand feet from Rikers. Far enough not to look obvious. Then, as we paddled further north and around the upper hump of Rikers, the Vernon C. Bain prison barge came into view on the Bronx shore. It was so massive, so blue and so white, that you would hardly recognize it as a ship. It looked more like a waterfront Ikea. You would think it’s too big to be a ship, and too windowless to be a prison. And yet it is both. It holds the Guinness World Record for being the largest prison ship in the world. No joke.
On the service road circling the periphery of Rikers, a little white truck came around the bend. I asked Lech if he saw it too. He did. But it was still the size of my pinky nail. Probably doing the rounds. We paddled between the prison barge and Rikers, and let ourselves drift into an open stretch of bay with the Whitestone Bridge in the distance, and the Throgs Neck Bridge behind it. We drifted towards the long jetty that divided the bay and drew a straight line to LaGuardia’s runway.
The closeness was stunning. We drifted toward an endless queue of passenger jets descending every minute or so. Each pass was earth shatteringly loud. I realized I had never really looked at the bottom of a jet before. A bright orange and blue 747 descended over us. The big wheels came out like egg sacs.
The white truck was gone, but the next stretch was by far the most daunting. The corner of LaGuardia’s runway almost kissed Rikers Island. It was the dreaded tight squeeze that we had discussed the night before. There’s about fifty feet of water between the runway and Rikers. We knew it would be a challenge, even the challenge of the project—but after that, we agreed, we would basically be home free. The reality was daunting. There were wooden pilings all over the place and the air control tower loomed overhead. Frankly, it looked like a no man’s land. Yet, it was possible to steer through. A canoe can be quite nimble. Lech and I shared a look with a jet howling over us.
“Stick to the plan, right?”
And just as those words were spoken, we both saw the white truck, back on the service road, parked, waiting for us to make our move.
Behind the truck was a manicured slope with a big sign that said: Rikers Island Correctional Facility. We snapped a Polaroid. The sign faced north, away from the mainland. Some rubber airplane wheels squeaked against the tarmac, and I was struck by the distinct feeling of being watched through a pair of binoculars.
Behind the sign loomed the George C. Vierno Center, the largest of the ten jails on Rikers. I had recently read about a fifty-man brawl inside, over a hot plate to make grilled cheese sandwiches. The article said the brawl went on for forty-five minutes. But from where Lech and I sat, bobbing around, the George C. Vierno Center was an unremarkable thing on a hill, some concrete walls ringed by barbed wire, and little else. Which is to say that even when you’re looking right at it, there’s no way to know what’s going on inside Rikers.
And yet there it was, so little to see: a groomed slope, some buildings, tall fences, razor-wire, and a little white truck that, there was no mistaking it now, was definitely driving in sync with us, very slowly, along the service road. We paddled cautiously ahead, hugging the pilings, toward the tip of the runway. Then the truck shot up ahead, fortifying the tight squeeze, and three figures hopped out and stood by their doors. Very faintly, under the screech of a jet, a bullhorn crackled from the white truck.
I could also hear Lech’s brain—neither of us were talking—wanting to make a break for it. Go… dash ahead… keep rowing… act oblivious… keep freaking rowing, man! But straight ahead was the tightest part of the squeeze. You could have tossed a ball from the runway to the jail. The three men positioned themselves around the truck. Their full attention was on us. Could we even get through? And what would they do if we did? Would they throw a rope around us or jump into a boat? Would they lock us up in Rikers? Could they do that? What was our crime?
There was a lull between jets.
“Turn around! Crakkk! We’re calling the police!”
I tried to project a confused look—as if we had gotten lost somehow. I could only imagine Lech’s stoic expression. All I could see was the back of his head coming into alignment with the men and the white truck.
“Turn around—NOW!” We drifted so close that they stopped using the bullhorn. “We’re calling the police!”
“OK! We’re turning around!” I yelled back.
Somehow we managed to paddle off in relative peace. We steered the canoe away from the runway and into the wide part of the bay where we had drifted before. The truck followed us, but the further away we paddled the less it felt like they could grab us. And it was a relief to get away from the jets. We paused to catch our breath and collect ourselves. A long formation of birds passed over Manhattan, flying in a crooked V towards New Jersey.
“Should we go back? What should we do?”
“More importantly: how do we make this art?”
Suddenly, as if in response, a patrol boat roared up on us. It took less than a minute for two officers to pull us on board like two kittens from a floating branch. We silently helped them lift the canoe onto the stern, where one cop lashed it down, gave a signal to the other, and we took off with the twin motors roaring and the wind in our hair.
The canoe looked strange, with water whipping off of it, like it had been kidnapped. And it wasn’t just any canoe. It was the canoe of my childhood memories. My dad had given it to me a decade earlier, and I had toted it all around New York, storing it in basements and community gardens with enormous diplomatic efforts. It was much too big for an apartment—a magnificent crescent of orange plastic with a single transom, a bit longer than a car. Transportation was always a problem. So when Lech got his moving van we started to hatch a plan.
Circumnavigating Rikers Island was conceived as a psycho-geographical action, a Deleuzian “line of flight,” an interrogation of the invisible boundaries governing New York City and incarcerated people in general. A bit cryptic, maybe, but we were both willing to do it, that was the important thing. The only problem was the cover story. There was no good cover story, and an encounter with the authorities seemed more than possible.
The patrol boat whisked us around the airport and into a part of the bay that was wholly unfamiliar. They trooped us onto the cement dock of NYPD Harbor G, confiscated the camera, and immediately separated us. Lech stayed by the boat, and they walked me over to the far side of the pier.
Sometimes one cop would ask if I was comfortable, if I wanted to sit down—but mostly they left us alone. They were waiting for something. Lech was at the other end, crouched down, smoking. More and more officers showed up. 115th Precinct, 110th Precinct, Harbor Patrol, Port Authority, TSA, and some others in windbreakers. I remember wishing I had brought a jacket, and making the decision to stand up, no matter how much I wanted to sit down. I thought of the year I had spent standing, when I was a guard at the Met. I could stand forever if I had to.
Four hours later the sky was laced with migrating birds, making their way south against the sunset. Then it got dark.
A young, red-headed cop strolled over to me laughing, as if we were both in trouble.
“It’s a little ridiculous. I realize that,” he said. “But somebody rang the alarm in the tower, and this is what happens. Now we gotta get this sorted out. We gotta do it.”
“Do what?” I said.
He smiled at me.
“It’s a little ridiculous. I realize that. You just hang tight.”
Ten minutes later the FBI pulled up in a black sedan. A man and woman got out, both looking very television: holsters, badges, pinstripes, boots. They scanned us quickly and walked over to the Harbor precinct. Lech and I exchanged a look from across the pier. The agents huddled up with the cops, and a second unmarked car pulled up. This time a bald FBI man got out, alone. He approached me directly.
“Let’s go inside,” he said.
So I followed him. Keep it simple.
We walked up the steps and into the Harbor G office. It looked like a brutalist starship with a wide view over the bay. There were at least two dozen officers filling the room, acting casual, waiting to see what the FBI would do. One cop tucked his shirt in. It was good to be out of the wind, and the FBI man offered me a comfortable chair. I tried to look for Lech outside the window, but all I could see was the bay and a few stars. The FBI man sat down next to me.
“Why were you taking pictures?” he said.
My pulse thumped in my ears.
“I just take pictures. We were exploring. And we got off track.” Nothing could have sounded more stupid in that moment.
The cops around us hung on his words. He had an ambiguous expression, but there was something in his graveness that felt so much like a movie I could hardly believe it. The smell of old precinct coffee was thick.
“Exploring what—where were you going?” He stretched his neck.
“We were… canoeing. We got turned around. We were trying to get back to, um, the creek.” Silence. My arrest seemed imminent.
“The creek we set off from.” The story was collapsing with every stroke. “We parked over there. On the other side of Rikers.”
“Rikers?” The FBI man cleared his throat. “You know you were in a security zone, a high security zone—it’s not just Rikers— you were way too close to the airport— you could have—I can’t even…” He loosened his tie.
“Somebody rang the alarm. In the tower. At the airport. So now it’s a federal thing. Tuesday is 9/11, you realize that, right?” There was a long pause. “We’re from a Joint Terrorist Task Force, do you understand what that means?” He said it one more time to let it sink in. Joint. Terrorist. Task Force.
Oh, to have seen my face.
“I’m definitely not a terrorist.”
“Nobody’s saying you’re a terrorist, but you did violate a Federal Airport Security Zone. You can’t go within a thousand feet of the airport. You can’t go near the airport. Are you guys stupid, or what?” He flipped through my Polaroids. “Walk me through this. You guys set off at a creek?”
I told him the story from the beginning, describing our movements in detail—how we parked the van, set off, passed by North Brother, paddled through the middle of the bay. I never said circumnavigate. I never said art. I may have mentioned the white truck. The FBI man pulled up his chair next to me.
“Did you take pictures on your phone?”
“Maybe, yes, a couple.” He was looking at the Polaroid of the dead barge in the creek. He flipped through and paused on a picture of a plane descending over us.
“Why were you taking pictures of planes?” There was a long pause. He was looking into my soul. Seeing what I was made of.
I tried hard to keep my body still. The FBI man’s cell phone buzzed and he looked at it.
“Now we gotta wait for the Coast Guard,” he said. “They get the last word on these things, evidently.”
The bay was dark. I couldn’t see Rikers or the bridges. I really had no idea where we were. The wind picked up. The Harbor G flag whipped around over the precinct. Finally the Coast Guard pulled up in a low, sporty boat with a heavy machine gun on the bow. Two guys in wool hats got out, spoke to the FBI, spoke to the cops, then came to have a look at us. They were young, just barely adults. We all went back inside. One of the Coast Guards asked me some basic questions, name, address, while the other one, who may have been an actual teenager, filled out the paperwork. A few minutes later the Coast Guard presented me with a Boarding Report on carbon duplicate paper.
I waited outside and re-read the report. The kid had misspelled my name, my address—he had even misspelled Brooklyn. I showed Lech the document as we loaded the canoe in the van. His report was riddled with typos too.
We both understood that we had stood at the edge of something terrible, an authoritarian machine that could have easily made us disappear. And the fact that our desire to see and show others the penal colony hidden in Flushing Bay had led us to this precipice only reinforced the feeling that Rikers was a blight on New York City. We both considered ourselves prison abolitionists. Because it really is a continuation of slavery—anyone paying attention can see that. Accordingly, Rikers was hidden. Even on the subway maps at the time, it was blotted out by a list of bus connections. And of all the thousands of passengers on the thousands of planes that took off at LaGuardia every year, how many really looked at the prison island below them when the skyscrapers of Manhattan stood so dazzlingly close?
“I’m thinking of nachos, or French toast, and a smoothie, definitely some coffee,” Lech said.
“What about the spot by PS1?”
To be driving to a diner, listening to death metal tapes, after all that, felt like an act of God. Rikers was still there, full of suffering and violence, while the rest of the city teemed around us, full of its own different kind of suffering and violence. An N train rattled over us. The FBI agents were probably heading home to their families, the cops making coffee, and the buoy clanging away to the seagulls. The tape deck flipped to Side B. There was a brief moment of quiet. Rikers was still there, though who knew for how long.
The meaning of Rikers has changed in the years since we attempted to circumnavigate it in 2013. In 2017 Mayor De Blasio announced a ten-year plan to close Rikers Island, mostly by moving inmates into various smaller jails, but also as a gesture to reducing prison population as a whole in New York. At the time of the project, it was difficult to imagine a reversal of that kind. Rikers looked as permanent as the airport or anything else. I can’t say I felt relief when I heard the news. Especially when I considered the prisoners who would be put on buses, processed in new facilities, then locked up or hustled into courtrooms. Yet there is more than symbolic value in the closing of the largest jail in North America. It may not be something to celebrate, it is aesthetic, but it may also be a sign that the worst years of mass incarceration are definitively behind us. Redevelopment plans are uncertain, in part because the island is a landfill and leaks methane gas. It’s still too toxic to meet the criteria for residential zoning. There have been proposals to expand the airport onto the island, as well as to turn it into a green energy hub. No one really knows at this point. Least of all the 7,000 people still detained there.