EXPERIENCE RIKERS ISLAND JAIL THROUGH THE EYES OF FORMER INMATES IN BILL MOYERS’ NEW DOCUMENTARY
In a new documentary from journalist Bill Moyers, “RIKERS,” former inmates at the notorious Rikers Island Jail in New York tell their stories of prolonged solitary confinement, violence, and other dehumanizing conditions within the jail.
The documentary will debut at DOC NYC on November 12, and air on PBS station THIRTEEN on November 15.
“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 veteran journalist said on his website BillMoyers.com.
Back in 2014, a four-month investigation by the NY Times revealed that brutal attacks by staff on mentally ill inmates inside the jail were “common occurrences.”
And in 2015, 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide following a traumatizing three-year stint at Rikers Island—without ever being tried—for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder spent most of those three years, which started at age 16, in solitary confinement. Following the prolonged isolation in Rikers, Browder struggled for three years with mental illness. The tormented young man tried to kill himself several times, finally succeeding in June of last year. (Read more about Kalief’s story: here.)
THIRTEEN’s Christina Knight interviewed Moyers about the history of Rikers, the dangers inmates face on a regular basis, and how the documentary came into being. Here’s a clip:
Q: What are the risks one faces if brought to Rikers?
In talking to almost one hundred former detainees – some jailed there in the 90s and others who just got out last year – we heard similar stories that seem to echo through the years. Inmates intimidate each other. They steal from each other. Attack each other. Beat each other. Some corrections officers abuse their power. The noise is unsettling and disturbing. Remember, these people are housed in “cages”, as it were. Their psychological stress is major, they get depressed and experience incredible anxiety. How so many survive is difficult to grasp. I’m still wrestling with that one.
Q: How did the filmmakers find and approach those featured in the documentary?
Our team was led by Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin, two long-time colleagues of mine and terrific filmmakers who have a lot of experience filming inside jails and prisons. They were joined by a new member of the team, Rolake Bamgbose, who was relentless in tracking down former detainees and engaging them in opening up memories that as you will see in the film, remain very painful many years later. We got a lot of help from criminal justice organizations in the city as well as others that specialize in re-entry programs and transitional houses.
Q: How did you vet the stories of the former detainees featured in the film?
Once we had narrowed down the number of primary story-tellers in the film to about a dozen, we very carefully checked out their descriptions of what they experienced. There are “use of force” reports”, civil suit documentation and other public records that substantiate their memories of life at Rikers Island Jail. One former inmate who attended a private screening of the film said softly as the lights came back up in the room, “Everything in there is true.”
The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange’s Clarissa Sosin saw a preview screening of the film. Here’s a clip from her take on the documentary:
In the film, Gibbs described his first time going to Rikers and the reactions of the other inmates as he entered the jail. To him the looks on their faces said, “Oh, we got a victim. Fresh meat,” he said.
Through crisp and emotionally raw interview footage of Gibbs and the other former inmates, interwoven with the occasional surveillance footage, “RIKERS” vividly creates a bleak and violent image of the culture of violence inside the jail.
Event organizer Lisa Armstrong, visiting associate professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, said she was struck by the film.
“For some reason it impacted me in a way that I didn’t expect it to, given that I already knew how bad Rikers was, or is,” she said.
Ismael Nazario, a former inmate featured in the film, described being jumped by another inmate. He said that when a corrections officer broke up the fight, she said to him, “You going to hold it down?” a phrase he said he would come to realize meant, “Are you going to stay quiet?”
Candie Hailey-Means, one of only two women in the film, described screaming out for help while being sexually assaulted by corrections officers in her cell. Morse, the other woman, described being attacked and raped in the showers. Tears streamed down her face as she recalled the incident on camera.
Other experiences described in the film: feeling like a “roasted pig” while being hogtied and carried by corrections officers; watching an inmate throw scalding hot water onto another’s face, burning it so badly skin comes off in his hands; and playing with your own feces while in solitary because you don’t know what else to do.
DR. ROBERT K. ROSS – COMMUNITY SAFETY IS MORE THAN JUST POLICING
In an op-ed for the LA Times, Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of The California Endowment, says that while the national conversation regarding public safety is hyper-focused on racism in policing, the biggest dangers to youth and their families “have nothing to do with guns or badges.”
Beyond race relations, problems like absence of affordable child care, low reading levels among young boys of color, harsh school discipline, and a dearth of parks have considerable negative impacts on community safety, says Dr. Ross, a former public health official and pediatrician. And when community members feel neglected or abandoned, the results “can be harmful—even lethal,” as was the case in Ferguson, MO.
Ross also touches on the importance of improving police-community relations through increased transparency and training, as well as boosting crime prevention efforts—like mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and after-school programs—to make cities safer.
Here’s a clip:
Cities, starting with Los Angeles, should put these kinds of issues and needs at the center of our thinking on community safety.
Improving police-community relations is an essential safety strategy, as well as just the right thing to do. Many excellent police officers are doing their best for Los Angeles, but their effectiveness and security are compromised when community trust falters. To address this, Mayor Eric Garcetti and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck should provide greater transparency in police shooting investigations and hold Police Commission meetings in community locations to allow for more meaningful participation. The LAPD also should accelerate the training reforms it has been piloting with civil rights attorney Connie Rice and support research into racial and gender biases, such as the work of the Center for Policing Equity co-founded by UCLA professor Philip Goff.
But spending on law enforcement cannot be the only way we think about investing in improving community safety. Any shift certainly will entail difficult conversations about how L.A. city and county budgets are organized and allocated. The Los Angeles County sheriff’s and probation departments together have nearly 27,000 employee positions, compared to just 5,000 jobs in mental health and 1,600 in parks and recreation. We need to move public spending away from reacting to crime, and do more to prevent it in the first place.
Research can help us understand how to do that. If we examine data, such as that of UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods project, which maps where arrestees live and calculates the cost of their incarceration, we can see where we need to target preventive resources. For instance, the top reasons for being booked in Los Angeles County Jail are drug possession, driving while under the influence and domestic violence, suggesting we need more investments in mental health and addiction treatment in affected neighborhoods. More importantly, we need to look upstream and provide these communities with more support for preschool, school-based health services, after-school programs and other services that keep kids in school and support families.
ONCE-DISENFRANCHISED FORMERLY INCARCERATED PEOPLE EXPLAIN WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE ABLE TO VOTE THIS YEAR
Around 6.1 million US citizens—1 out of every 40 voting-age men and women—are banned from voting due to felon disenfranchisement laws. In California, felony offenders cannot vote while in prison or on parole, but upon completion of a sentence, voting rights are restored. (There are many states with much harsher laws, as well as states that never remove the right to vote.)
Politico Magazine’s Rikha Sharma Rani spoke with four formerly incarcerated men and one woman from San Diego who have recently regained their right to vote. The San Diegans talk about how it feels to be able to vote after having their rights restored, what issues they value, and who and what they’re voting for on Tuesday. Here’s a clip:
De’Andre Cooper, 22
Three years ago, De’Andre Cooper was charged with conspiracy to commit eight murders and seven attempted murders. As it happens, Cooper was in juvenile hall for much of the period during which the murders took place. But he, along with more than a dozen other men, were charged under a never-before-used section of California’s penal code, which allows gang members to be charged for felonies committed by the gang. It doesn’t matter whether you’re in another state when the crime takes place; if you’re a documented gang member, you can be found guilty of conspiracy. Police convicted members of Cooper’s gang for the murders and then charged Cooper with conspiracy. He accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Cooper was released after two years, but the experience changed him. The penal code that had enabled him to be charged had been voted into law by Californians. If the 22-year old, who will be voting for the first time on November 8th, ever needed a lesson on why elections matter, this was it.
It might seem strange, then, that Cooper won’t be voting for a president on Tuesday. “I’m going to vote on local propositions,” he says. He’s helping to rally voters to pass Proposition 57, an effort to roll back a previously passed law that allows prosecutors, rather than judges, to choose between juvenile and adult court—a law that, critics argue, puts too much power in the hands of prosecutors. He says he’s registered over a hundred people to vote this cycle—and that has nothing to do with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. “As long as I’ve been alive, with the presidents we’ve had, my life has always been the same.”
He calls the Trump videos showing the Republican candidate bragging about groping women “sick.” “I don’t know nobody that has that type of mind,” Cooper says, “for him to think he could just touch a woman that don’t want to be touched.”
He would prefer a Clinton presidency. Among other things, he believes that she is better suited to be commander-in-chief. “I think Trump wants to go to war. I think he promotes that type of violence,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be over there [at war] with Trump’s orders.” But he’s not going to help the Democratic candidate win. “I don’t want her to have my vote.”
Part of his decision not to cast a vote for the next president is rooted in his lack of faith in the institutions of this country—especially law enforcement. He describes a neverending cycle of being stopped by police as a youth, in which one stop would lead to the next, and the next…