On a rainy Friday in December, Eugene Jarecki took a small group of fellow filmmakers to a special screening of his acclaimed documentary, The House I Live In, in New York City. The film, a powerful indictment of the war on drugs, enjoys such celebrity producers as Brad Pitt and John Legend, and won the Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize in 2012. But the venue that day was a far cry from the glittering scene in Park City, Utah. That morning, Jarecki and his crew left the SoHo headquarters of Charlotte Street Films and made their way north, toward Rikers Island, New York’s largest jail.
Sitting on the East River, just a stone’s throw from La Guardia Airport, Rikers is a monument to the drug war; of more than 12,000 inmates living there on a given day, some 75 percent have “some substance abuse problem,” according to the city Department of Corrections. Many are detainees who can’t afford bail and about a third have been diagnosed with mental illness. In response to rising violence, ostensibly because of a shortage of punitive “segregation beds,” the DOC is expanding its use of solitary confinement on the island.
Once home to a single jail opened in 1932, Rikers’s population exploded in the ensuing decades; brick-and-mortar penitentiaries were followed by trailers, modular units and other hasty additions. “The island has been consumed by the seemingly endless demand for jail space,” New York magazine reported in 1994, when the Rikers inmate population was teetering close to 16,000 and violence had reached crisis levels. While there are fewer prisoners there today—thanks in part to the rollback of New York’s notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws—the island is still often referred to as the world’s largest penal colony, comprising ten different facilities, multiple gymnasiums, sports fields and more. (A floating prison, the Vernon C. Bain jail barge, houses Rikers overflow, some 800 additional prisoners.)
“We’re sitting here outside of a makeshift thing,” Jarecki muses as we sit in a van with bars on the windows, waiting to be taken over the bridge from Queens. “They never imagined that this would become a way of life in America.”
The challenges of screening in prisons and jails can be considerable; members of Jarecki’s team spend hours on the logistics. Asked why he’s made this his mission—he plans to visit 100 in 2013—Jarecki describes being haunted by something Ralph Nader told him after he made Why We Fight, a film about the Iraq War. “He said, ‘You make a very good movie. I don’t know that you deploy it very well.’ ” It was that word, “deploy,” that stuck with him. Having filmed in a federal prison in Oklahoma, Jarecki first decided to show the finished product there, out of a sense of obligation. “I owe it to those prisoners,” he remembers thinking. But later he realized that inmates and their families would be central to spreading the message of the film to those most directly impacted by the drug war. To that end, all in attendance will receive postcards with contact information for Charlotte Street Films in case they want to follow up.
The van drops us off at the Eric M. Taylor Center, home to teenage and adult prisoners, all of who have been sentenced to a year or less of jail time. (This is a small portion of Rickers inmates, about 18 percent. The rest are awaiting trial and will eventually be shipped elsewhere.) A Christmas tree stands at the entrance and on the wall across from the metal detector is a poster for a Winter White Holiday Celebration, hosted by the DOC (“The Bravest”) in Long Island City.