Over the years I have landed at New York’s LaGuardia Airport knowing that the island just off and below the tip of the right wing was Rikers, the city’s largest jail, isolated in the East River within sight of the Manhattan skyline and separated from the borough of Queens by a single bridge. Looking across at the stark jumble of buildings, I had often thought of Alcatraz, on the other side of the continent: penal colonies framing America’s gateways.
Alcatraz, however, has long been closed and is now a favorite tourist destination. Rikers remains chock full of detainees awaiting their day in court or, once convicted, a bus trip to an upstate prison. From time to time reports of abuse and cruelty against detainees, or of violent confrontations between them and their guards, or brawls among gangs—aroused curiosity among the “mainland” public, but rarely for very long.
Then, in recent years, the trickle of reports became a torrent. Some brilliant journalism coupled with growing awareness and outrage by local activists, including the advocacy group #CloseRikers, prompted attention from the city’s independent commission, a federal investigation and intimations of reform. But reports persist of terrible things happening there. As I have followed the news, some research revealed that television had given no extended attention to what was happening on Rikers and that video could add an important dimension to the coverage by giving the public a chance to hear directly from the inmates themselves, face to face.
Along with my producing collaborator Judy Doctoroff at Public Square Media, I reached out to some longtime colleagues—the independent and oft-awarded filmmakers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin at Brick City TV, joined by producer Rolake Bamgbose—who were soon at work, identifying scores of former detainees and interviewing many of them on camera for hours. The result is a vivid arc of life on Rikers as told by the people who experienced it—from the trauma of entry, the conflicts with other inmates and corrections officers, the stabbings and beatings, and the torture of solitary confinement to the psychological challenges of returning to the outside world.
The stories of Rikers Island Jail are far too common in jails across America, where similar violence, abuse and corruption makes local headlines and the same issues that stand in the way of swift and appropriate justice turn jails into warehouses that detain the guilty and the innocent without distinction.
This documentary originally premiered on Thirteen/WNET in New York City in November, 2016. Renamed RIKERS: AN AMERICAN JAIL, it premiered on PBS stations across the country in May, 2017. Currently the film is the centerpiece for screening and discussion events across the county and our hope is that through these stories people will come to understand the depth and breadth of our mass incarceration crisis and the urgency of finding solutions that better serve us all.