Law & Order v.s. Lockdown: The Truth Behind Rikers Island

Trials tend to make it to the courtroom much faster on TV.

As a former mental health chief at New York City’s Rikers Island, I watch TV crime dramas with special interest, especially when the action switches to Rikers. No crime series includes the notorious lockup more often than the enduring Law & Order. While this popular TV series makes for satisfying entertainment, and even better PR for our vaunted system, I am always struck by the vast difference between these shows and real life. In each Law & Order episode, tenacious cops track leads and leave no stone unturned as they hunt down perpetrators of crimes, both minor and heinous. After the suspects are arrested, those who cannot make bail are frequently held on Rikers Island, where they await their day in court. And as the barred gate slams shut, the police work is finished. Dun-Dun. The judicial process takes over, assuring us that the detainee sitting in that jail cell is innocent until proven guilty. He will have his day in court, by gosh, his constitutional right. If he cannot afford legal counsel, the court will appoint a lawyer. Attorneys in crisp suits will then spend sleepless nights preparing for trial. Prosecutors will stop at nothing to prove guilt, while defense lawyers use every ounce of their legal acumen trying to prove otherwise. When the fateful day arrives, which it does very quickly, consistent with “right to a speedy trial,” the courtroom drama unfolds, and by the end of the show, the verdict is read – Guilty, or Not Guilty. Justice is served. The TV gets flicked off with the knowledge that the guilty will be punished, the innocent exonerated, and that our criminal justice system is in fine working order!  

Rikers Island, as seen from above. / Photo: NY Post

Yet in real life, an entirely different process unfolds. Having worked closely with the people sitting in those cells on Rikers, awaiting their promised day in court, the biggest difference is that unlike Law & Order, where arrest is followed by trial, in reality, only a handful of the Rikers detainees will ever go to trial. Roughly speaking, for every hundred thousand felony arrests in any given year, the capacity of courtrooms, lawyers and judges is for approximately 3,000 of these cases to be tried. The bottleneck to get to trial is so badly backlogged that there is no such thing as a “speedy trial.”  If Law & Order was to run true to form, then after an alleged perpetrator is arrested and shipped to Rikers, the TV audience would have to mark their calendars for at least three years later to find out what happens next.

And what does happen to the real-life detainee while he waits? Most likely, a plea deal is offered by the district attorney’s office, and the defense lawyer will push the detainee to accept it. Unlike the determined defense attorneys of TV lore, the overworked public defender has no interest in trial strategies, tracking leads, and nailing down expert witnesses. Legal consultations are hurried affairs in court bullpens. If the detainee agrees to the offered deal, he foregoes his day in court, and accepts some measure of guilt. The tradeoff is a lighter sentence than if convicted at trial. Whether guilty or innocent, most succumb to the plea bargain so as to move things along — and get the hell off Rikers Island. And if the detainee refuses the deal, he must survive years in jail. He might get jumped, endure beatings by guards, or perhaps be thrown into solitary confinement for some minor jailhouse infraction.

These things happened to many of the “presumed innocent” that I worked with, and that I encouraged to hold out for trial. All of these things happened to Kalief Browder, the young man whose tragic plight on Rikers was so thoroughly detailed in the media. Arrested for swiping a backpack, he vehemently denied it, and because he could not afford bail, waited three long years for his “speedy trial.” But after his release, he emerged as a broken person who couldn’t put the horror of Rikers behind him, and committed suicide. Tragically, Kalief’s ordeal is not unique. Thousands assert their innocence, but will never see their case unfold the way it does on Law & Order. Most will grab the plea deal, not because they’re guilty, but because they must survive.

Kalief Browder

Law & Order is an enjoyable series, viewed by millions. The only danger in this innocent entertainment is when it masks the horrible truth, and people start believing this is how the system actually works.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Mary E. Buser's Lockdown on Rikers!

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Lockdown on Rikers Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at at 4:15 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) September 23, 2015. Sweepstakes ends 4:14 p.m. ET September 30, 2015. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Mary E. Buser received her Master's degree from Columbia University, where she was the recipient of the Overbrook Award, in recognition of outstanding clinical and academic achievement. Prior to Rikers Island, she was co-founder and first director of the Samaritans of New York, a suicide prevention hotline.


  1. Jim Belcher

    How can we break the logjam?

  2. joe henriques

    Great article! While I’m aware the speed of justice on TV cop shows is unrealistically faster than in real life, I didn’t realize just how truly slow our real system is. Three years waiting for your day in court? No wonder so many take plea deals.

    On a side note, I’m willing to suspend belief when it comes to certain matters on TV like the speed of trials and investigations, but things like a CSI team carrying guns and busting in on suspects are tough to swallow.

  3. Jud Hanson

    I love shows like L&O and take for granted that they use some literary license in how the justice system works. After all, they only have an hour from crime to conviction.

  4. Deb Philippon

    Literary license is pretty much endemic on TV dramas, and is especially noticeable in legal and medical shows.

  5. Cindy Hipolito

    Read the excerpt. This story definitely has my attention. Looking forward to the opportunity of reading this book. Thanks for this giveaway!

  6. rich bar

    nice–very interesting read

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    I have long held the prejudice that criminals deserve what they get. I also have a fascination with prisons and jails that some think is weird, but I don’t think it’s weird at all. Overall this looks like an interesting book.

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    I love Law & Order and I know this would be an exciting read

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  11. Rita Sheppard

    Your article is an eye-opener.

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  24. Michele Baron

    I enjoy the Law & Order shows…knowing what really goes on in “real life” sounds like an enjoyable read

  25. Patricia Hill

    Sounds like an excellent read

  26. Mary Ann Brady

    Sounds really great. I have worked in courts and this is of interest to me. Thx.

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    Sounds like a great book and loved Law & Order great writing also.

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  43. Teresa Young

    What a heartbreaking, and broken, system we have – no way should we call it ‘justice’.

  44. Barbara Miller

    L&O, CSI – I’m a junkie.

  45. Lori P

    Fact v. Fiction would make for a very interesting and enlightening read. (Too bad this is the case.)

  46. Deanna Stillings

    We really need a new type of court and a new type of jail to contend with cases like stolen backpacks and other minot infractions…then one would not have to spend all that time in a big jail and come out a changed person.

  47. Irene Menge

    With all the wonderful modern technology, there should be a way that first time offenders who proclaim their innocence could be released on their own recognizance unless there is unassailable evidence against them. Some kind of tracking device or something.

  48. Michael Carter

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    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.

  49. Beth Talmage

    This book would be a hot commodity in our family of Law and Order fans (and cops). Thanks for the chance to enter.

  50. Tricia Blount

    I’m a great fan of the Law and Order series. I always enjoy watching the reruns on tv. 🙂

  51. Anna Mills

    Not only is the process not lie TV shows, that is not what I thought it would look like AT ALL! Not spooky enough.

  52. susan beamon

    I watch lots of crime dramas, Law and Order, CSI, Perry Mason, and so on, and I know they are fiction. The time is just too compressed to be believed. I’m mostly there for the conflict and resolution, just like I am with all the crime, mystery and thriller books I read.

  53. Sandra Brown

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  56. vicki wurgler

    wow-waiting three years for his speedy trial sounds like a great book

  57. Clydia DeFreese

    New topic for me! I think I would enjoy reading about Rikers.


    Fascinating article. I know when I watch Law & Order that it isn’t realistic, but I still enjoy it.

  59. Nissa Evans

    Hope to win a copy of Lockdown on Rikers.

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    I want to read this book but I’m almost afraid to know the truth.

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  63. Margot Core

    I know as much as an average person might know that these TV shows are pure fantasy; it would be really interesting to get the real information from an insider.

  64. ClairFreebie

    I have been watching Law & Order for years!! This would be such an interesting read for me!

  65. L

    An eye-opening exerpt. Would love to win this book and read the rest of the story.

  66. Cindy Jameson

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    This should be an interesting and educational read if the excerpt is any indication.

  69. Jeffrey Tretin

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  70. tiac35

    I’m a huge fan of Law & Order and a criminal justice major. I would love to read this book that provides additional truth behind the criminal justice system.

  71. Melissa Keith

    The justice system is flawed and prisons are overcrowded. I read a lot of True Crime. I don’t buy what those TV shows are selling. Mary, your book appeals to me greatly. If I don’t win, I’ll buy it…but I want to win it. 4 out of 5 serial killers agree…….

  72. Lisa Pecora

    Sounds interesting. I would like to read it.

  73. Lily

    Thanks for the great giveaway!

  74. Susan Smoaks

    honestly this book needs to be read. the police are the worst and they hurt far more than any other group of people!

  75. Marjorie Manharth

    What happened to justice? Would really like to read the book.

  76. Ava A Chavez

    Good luck all!!!!

  77. Saundra K. Warren

    I’ve always been interested in this!

  78. Karen Terry

    I loved Law & Order. I can’t they are bringing some form of it back.

  79. Rudy Wright

    What a great opportunity to see inside what is such a mystery to most of us.

  80. Pam Flynn

    This really gives me the chills to think I could read Law & Order in a book. Amazing!

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Comments are closed.