Reporting on Mass Incarceration – RIKERS – A Documentary Film
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Reporting on Mass Incarceration

Thanks to some excellent journalism and spirited grassroots advocacy, the violence, cruelty and abuse that pervades our criminal justice system, particularly at Rikers Island, has gained more attention in recent years. Here are some outstanding articles and books that informed us as we were producing RIKERS. Since we wrapped, press coverage continues to reveal the underlying complexity of solving myriad problems at the jail complex. We’ve also included some of these articles below. — Bill Moyers

Background Reporting

New York Daily News

Rikers Island’s cycle of violence violates teen inmates’ constitutional rights: DOJ

By Reuven Blau and Dareh Gregorian, August 4, 2014

Rikers Island is violating the rights of inmates aged 16 to 18, federal prosecutors said following a two-year investigation into their treatment. In a blistering report, prosecutors conclude that Rikers is a “broken” jail where adolescent inmates ­– most of whom have not been convicted of a crime and about half of whom have been diagnosed with mental illness – are routinely beaten by correction officers and solitary confinement is used at an “alarming” rate. Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara calls Rikers “a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort.”

The New Yorker

Before The Law

by Jennifer Gonnerman, October 6, 2014

A finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, this article tells the story of teenager Kalief Browder, who spent three years imprisoned on Rikers Island without being convicted of a crime, spending much of that time in solitary confinement. Gonnerman reveals the failings of the criminal-justice system through his case: chronically overwhelmed courts causing unconscionable delays, excessive use of solitary confinement, violence amongst inmates and brutality by corrections officers. Browder struggled with mental illness after being in solitary, leading to a number of suicide attempts while incarcerated. After his release, he hung himself in 2015 at the age of 22.

The New York Times

Even as Many Eyes Watch, Brutality at Rikers Island Persists

by Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz, February 21, 2015

This article reports on the persistence of brutal confrontations at Rikers, identifying 62 cases in which inmates were seriously injured by correction officers between August 2014 and January 2015, a time when city and federal officials had become increasingly focused on reducing violence there. The story explores the challenge of turning around Rikers, including the recruitment of officers who belonged to gangs or had criminal records (or both), inadequate training, excessive overtime and a culture of covering up for fellow officers. It also points to the challenges associated with handling mentally ill inmates, a group that now accounts for nearly 40 percent of the jail population.

The New York Times

New York City Settles Suit Over Abuses at Rikers Island

by Benjamin Weiser, June 22, 2015

Following months of negotiations, the city of New York resolves a legal dispute over abuses at Rikers Island. Under the deal, the administration of Mayor de Blasio agrees to many far-reaching reforms, including the appointment of a federal monitor, restricting the use of force by guards against inmates and the installation of thousands of surveillance cameras. The deal also includes a major focus on the safety and supervision of teenage inmates, following a major federal civil rights investigation.

The Marshall Project

This Is Rikers

June 28, 2015

From the nonprofit news group The Marshall Project, in collaboration with New York magazine, interviews with dozens of people who spend or have spent time at Rikers Island: correction officers, inmates, lawyers, volunteers and the families of inmates. Through their stories, we learn about a complex society inside Rikers with its own hierarchies — official and not. Gangs openly control certain dorms, while correction officers are in a constant battle with inmates, often violently. Some form transactional relationships with inmates — for sex, drugs or cigarettes. Recent reforms at Rikers, in particular the end of solitary confinement for 16-to 17-year-olds, has made it more difficult for correction officers to do their job, some say, resulting in more violence.

WNYC: The Brian Lehrer Show

A Rikers Island Social Worker

September 29, 2015

Clinical social worker Mary Buser, who served as assistant unit chief in the Mental Health Department on Rikers Island from 1995 to 2000, provides an insider’s view of the abuse of inmates inside the jail. Buser, author of Lockdown on Rikers: Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York’s Notorious Jail, says her department handed out anti-psychotics, anti-depressants and sleeping pills to virtually everyone in the continuously packed to capacity, 500-bed solitary unit. On the mentally ill, she says they should not be imprisoned there, believing “it’s no way for a civilized society to treat their vulnerable.”

The New York Times

City to Pay $5.3 Million to End Suits Over 2 Rikers Inmates’ Deaths

by Michael Schwirtz, November 17, 2015

The city of New York agrees to pay over $5 million to settle two lawsuits brought by the families of two men who died while incarcerated at Rikers Island. Jason Echevarria was a 25-year-old inmate who died in 2012 after swallowing a toxic soap packet. A federal jury found that his pleas for help were ignored by jail staff for hours. Carlos Mercado, 45, died within 15 hours of entering Rikers after suffering complications from diabetes. Surveillance video showed Mercado falling to the floor and lying there for three minutes as correction officers stepped over him.


Rikers Island: A Dark History of New York City’s Forgotten Neighborhood

JustLeadershipUSA, an organization focused on reducing crime and drastically cutting the US prison population, produced this timeline of Rikers Island as part of their #CLOSErikers campaign. Before becoming New York City’s primary county jail, Rikers had a dark and toxic history of its own, dating back to the pro-slavery family who purchased the 87-acre island in the 1600s.

Recent Press on Rikers


Lippman Announces Members of Criminal Justice Commission

by Gloria Pazmino, March 17, 2016

The independent commission led by New York’s former chief judge Jonathan Lippman and tasked with reforming New York City’s criminal justice system, announces the 26 members that will join the group. The members come from criminal justice reform organizations, community groups, the judiciary, the defense bar, academia, corrections, advocacy groups and the business community. The commission was established at the request of New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has also tasked it with considering the possibility of closing Rikers Island.


De Blasio Budget Includes Millions to Build new Jail for Adolescent Inmates

by Colby Hamilton, April 26, 2016

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new budget includes $170 million to identify and renovate an existing jail or, if necessary, build a new one for adolescents in the city, according to the executive budget for Fiscal Year 2017. It is not yet clear whether the facility will again be on Rikers Island or located elsewhere. The move is part of reform efforts focused on incarcerated adolescents included in a 2015 legal settlement over abuses at Rikers Island. The budget also provides funding to create space for programming for older inmates, such as GED classes, work force training, substance abuse and life skill classes.

The New York Times

‘Time in the Box’: Young Rikers Inmates, Still in Isolation

by Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz, July 7, 2016

A year and a half after New York City officials announced they would eliminate solitary confinement at Rikers Island for inmates under age 22 by January 2016, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio is facing challenges in fulfilling the promise. Most of the 78 young adults who were in isolation at the beginning of 2016 have been moved out. But, according to Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, because of disciplinary issues, nine remained. In this article, the Times interviews several of the under age 22 inmates, still in isolation.

The New York Times

City Report Suggests Progress in Effort to Curb Violence at Rikers Island

by Samantha Schmidt, August 2, 2016

In the first half of the year at Rikers Island, there was a substantial drop in the use of force on detainees resulting in serious injuries, according to New York City’s Department of Corrections. Correction officers used force 39 times resulting in serious injuries to detainees, compared to 72 times in the first half of 2015. Assaults by detainees on staff members dropped 20 percent to 394 episodes during the first six months of 2016. The department said total episodes involving the use of force fell 2 percent to 2,223, the first drop since 2011.

The New York Times

City to Pay $5.75 Million Over Death of Mentally Ill Inmate at Rikers Island

by Benjamin Weiser, September 27, 2016

The city of New York will pay $5.75 million to settle a lawsuit brought after the 2013 death of Bradley Ballard, a mentally ill Rikers Island detainee who was found naked and covered in urine and feces after being locked in his cell for six days. Following Ballard’s death, The State Commission of Correction, a prison watchdog agency, found that Ballard, 39, was not given his medication for diabetes and schizophrenia and lacked running water in his cell.

The Daily News

NYC correction officers sue city, claim their complaints of jail violence are ignored

by Barbara Ross, October 18, 2016

New York City Correction officers are suing the mayor, the City Council and the city Board of Corrections charging they are not receiving the attention they deserve about jail conditions because there is too much focus on inmate complaints. The president of the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association, Elias Husamudeen, said in court papers that the board is ignoring the City Charter, which requires them to investigate both inmate and guard complaints. Husamudeen claims that detainee violence against officers has surged since the de Blasio administration virtually ended the use of solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 22.