What's Happening at Rikers Island – RIKERS – A Documentary Film
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What’s Happening at Rikers Island

The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform was formed in New York City in March 2016 with two dozen experts, policymakers, and advocates from a broad variety of backgrounds, including those who have spent time behind bars. In April 2017 the Commission released its recommendations and called for closing Rikers and replacing it with smaller jails in the city’s five boroughs. Just prior to the report’s release, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, reversed his prior position that closing Rikers Island Jail was not feasible, and announced his support for closing Rikers, but he said it will take a decade.

The production of RIKERS: AN AMERICAN JAIL was informed by excellent investigative journalism and media coverage of conditions at Rikers Island. Find some examples of that coverage below.

Press coverage on closing Rikers

Huffington Post

First Rikers Island Jail Facility Set To Close This Summer


As part of a plan to permanently close Rikers Island, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the the island’s first jail will close summer 2018. Eight other facilities on the island will remain open for now.

New York Daily News

As Pols Mull Closing Rikers, New Yorkers Overwhelmingly Support Reforming Jail System: Survey

BY REUVEN BLAU, April 6, 2017

A new poll finds that a large majority of New York City residents back a series of criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the number of people behind bars. The reforms are part of a plan put forth by an independent commission that recommends shutting down the Rikers Island, the city’s sprawling jail complex.

The New York Times

What is Rikers Island?

By Michael Schwirtz, April 5, 2017

The New York Times has been reporting on the problems at Rikers Island, as well as the New York City Correction Department, which oversees the jail. In this brief primer, the Times examines the history of violence at Rikers Island, efforts by Mayor Bill deBlasio to end its brutal culture and why the city has decided to shutter the facility, as well as next steps.

Mother Jones

NYC Came Up With A Brilliant Strategy For Cutting Its Jail Population In Half

By Madison Pauly, April 5, 2017

Many of the individuals who are held at Rikers Island are “not threats to public safety,” according to Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, “what they are is poor.” To reduce pretrial detention, the independent commission headed by Lippman proposes ending the use of money bail entirely, which would require legislative action. Mother Jones examines this and other bail-related recommendations.

The New York Times

Rikers Island Commission Unveils Plan To Shut Down Jail Complex

By Nick Corasaniti, April 2, 2017

A year after an independent commission was tasked with studying Rikers Island, the group, led by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, released its recommendations for closing the jail complex. A cornerstone of the commission’s proposals are measures aimed at cutting the number of inmates held at any given time from the current average of 10,000 to 5,000 within ten years. It also proposes ending the “mass incarceration” model in NYC by building five smaller prisons.

New York Law Journal (registration required)

Rikers Review Panel Calls For Closure, Court Reforms

By Andrew Denney, March 31, 2017

Along with proposals aimed at shutting Rikers Island, the independent commission that studied New York City’s criminal justice system recommends changes to the courts, including bail reform and expedited handling of cases, as well as alternatives to incarceration. The New York Law Journal covers these recommendations here.

Coverage that informed film production

Here is some outstanding journalism that informed the production of RIKERS: AN AMERICAN JAIL.

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.