Six weeks ago, an independent commission led by former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals Jonathan Lippman released a report calling for the closing of the Rikers Island correctional facility and changes in the criminal-justice system. According to journalist and documentarian Bill Moyers, who served as executive editor of the new film Rikers: An American Jail, “Lippman saw Rikers [before the report came out] and insisted that all of the members of the commission see the film.” Moyers, who has won more than 30 Emmy Awards, made the comment during a talkback with Oscar-winning actor Tim Robbins at a benefit screening of Rikers for The Actors’ Gang, the Los Angeles theater company Robbins founded, which presents acting workshops in California prisons.
Rikers is the “first feature-length documentary with inmates telling their own stories” at any major jail or prison, 82-year-old Moyers said in an interview. And what harrowing, dehumanizing sagas they are, with about a dozen interviewees—culled from around 200 subjects, most of them people of color—describing what Moyers dubbed “a culture of cruelty.” They vividly articulate the experience of entering the notorious facility on Rikers Island in New York’s East River; the brutal struggle for survival in and out of solitary confinement; then grappling with release back into a disorienting world where being branded an ex-con makes finding a job nearly impossible.
Former inmate and rapper Raymond Yu, aka China Mac, described arriving at Rikers as “like going into the belly of the beast,” where “everybody’s screaming and it just sounds like a madhouse.” Indeed, the film asserts that 40 percent of detainees are diagnosed with mental illness; amid frequent violence committed by other inmates as well as corrections officers, one “can never be sound asleep in prison,” Yu laments. A City Health Department report found that in one year those incarcerated at Rikers suffered 8,557 injuries. Kathy Morse, a white woman shattered by the wretchedness she experienced behind bars, reports being sexually assaulted in the shower by four inmates. And, driven to distraction, prisoners in solitary for hundreds of days literally count the roaches and rats or imagine that a diminutive cell’s paint chips are movies.
Most of Rikers, produced by three-time Emmy winner and longtime Moyers collaborator Marc Levin, consists of talking heads, although the filmmakers, who had limited access to Rikers, intercut the 56-minute documentary with aerial shots and surveillance footage. The latter shows Kalief Browder, a young black man detained at Rikers for three years while awaiting a trial for purportedly stealing a backpack, and who always maintained his innocence, being viciously assaulted by corrections officers. After his release, Browder was so traumatized by his Rikers ordeal, which included stints in solitary, that he committed suicide—which some of the film’s subjects also considered doing. The tales they tell the camera are gripping; as Moyers says, “Human faces are the best special effects.”