By Claudia Marina
How often do you see Riker’s? For most in New York City, unless you or your loved have worked or lived on the island, the answer is not often. Daily life for inmates and correctional officers is defined by the island, wedged between The Bronx and Queens on the East River, but the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority has a tricky history with labeling the island, which is home to a notorious prison complex, on its subway maps. In most underground stations, it is labeled but without means of getting there, and Riker’s is altogether forgotten inside subway car versions of the map. The Q100 bus line, which takes New Yorkers from Long Island City to Riker’s Island, exists almost as a myth.
In light of recent conversations regarding prison reform and Riker’s specifically, Parsons Design Studies students have teamed together to put Riker’s Island back on the map. Laura Sánchez, Estefanía Acosta de la Peña, and Misha Volf, second year Design Studies MA candidates, launched their sticker campaign #SeeRikers to bring awareness to the island and the fact that it is confines 10,000 people each day, affecting the lives of many New Yorkers trying to access transportation into Riker’s.
Sanchez thought of the idea of appropriating MTA’s place-making “You Are Here” indicators after being enrolled in Joseph Heathcott’s Design and Urban Practice History Lab and a Humanities Action Lab Course taught by Radhika Subramaniam and Julia Foulkes, which alongside #SeeRikers launched their States of Incarceration project on April 14. “I was inspired after [Heathcott] shared some examples of interventions in public space one day,” Sanchez said, adding that all three students contributed in creating the sticker.
“We want to get these on as many trains, in front of as many eyes as possible,” Sanchez said—which is why the three students handed them out at the Bernie Sanders rally at Washington Square Park on April 13, at the #CLOSErikers rally in front of City Hall on April 14, and had made stickers available at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center as part of the States of Incarceration exhibit through April 24. Now, those wishing to participate in the guerilla effort can obtain stickers by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by DIY printing their own with the #SeeRikers print files the students have made public. The goal is to get Riker’s back on the map and raise awareness by any means necessary, Sanchez said.
This isn’t the first time Sanchez, Acosta de la Peña, and Volf have collaborated. The trio worked together during their first year in the MA Design Studies program on the project “Terms of Design” which took terms in the Design Studies world such as “body” or “agency” and attempted to define them in a series of flashcards after immersing in the field and finding once-familiar words suddenly unfamiliar.
As people have been placing the stickers on MTA maps inside subway cars, Sanchez said she’s noticed a lot of conversation happening on social media from the #SeeRikers hashtag. The project has also received attention and coverage from Pete Brook’s “Prison Photography” project, AM New York, CityLab, Fusion, and Untapped Cities. From the reactions, she said she is interested in examining the tensions around who sees Riker’s and who doesn’t. From those who gained honest awareness of the island through the stickers to those wondering if a sticker can enact change, what’s certain is that Riker’s can no longer be invisible. The next time you’re on the subway, you may end up “seeking” Riker’s as a result.