Working through the ranks on Rikers Island

Nick Potts, Features Contributor

This previously ran in our February print issue.

“[My wife] wasn’t very happy with me when I was working on Rikers.”

In 1960, Denis Cowan found himself working as a corrections officer at the Rikers Island prison in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx. The prison is infamous for its extreme corruption and violence. 

Holding high authority was a lot to handle, especially with the discriminatory practices of the time, but he managed to deal with all of the pressure while balancing his family life. 

He spent 14 years as an officer and everyday he had to catch the bus, two trains downtown, D-train downtown, then bus to the pier, jog down to the pier, and finally ride the ferry over to the island.  

“I would arrive at the ferry exhausted, but I had to get ready to step foot on the island,” Cowan said. “You cannot let your guard down when being part of the authorities.” 

In 1976, after years of patrolling, Cowan was promoted to Captain at Rikers. 

Cowan controlled the Women’s House of Detention and the Men’s Correctional Institute. Some years later, Cowan was finally in the spotlight – he was promoted to Warden of Rikers Island.

 He oversaw 2,000 adults and 500 adolescents; 900 officers reported to him. Multiple riots broke out within other departments due to the decision to bring prisoners down from upstate. He did not agree, so he took control of the various departments of the prison and sent everyone — the prisoners and the prison staff — where they had to be. 

“Sure I was nervous at some points, and I would get many threats from the prisoners; that’s why I always had to be aware,” Cowan said. 

Cowan gave an order that the officers had to follow. 

“Give [the prisoners] what they are supposed to get,” he said, referring to prisoners residing in cells, not dorms.

Rikers is known for its mass corruption, but according to Cowan, the rumours of corruption within are only somewhat true. Some examples of this corruption were cooks smuggling in drugs and nuns bringing in items or gifts for the prisoners while smuggling drugs and weapons inside the items. 

While in the position of warden, there were drastic impacts to Cowan’s life. Wardens worked days, but would stay later if needed. He missed out on family time, school time, and holidays. 

“I used to bring [my daughter and my son] to the entertainment plays the prisoners would put on during the holidays,” Cowan said.  

Aside from family life, politics were heavily involved, especially in the higher ranks. Various activities like appointments, tests, the mayor visiting the prison, and directing orders and tasks to the officers were all part of the web of politics. Nothing was ever too extreme for the warden of Rikers Prison.