Rikers, a riveting new documentary from veteran PBS journalist Bill Moyers, brings you face to face with men and women who have endured incarceration at Rikers Island in New York City. Their stories, told direct to camera, describe the cruel arc of the Rikers experience—from the shock of entry, to the extortion and control exercised by other inmates, the oppressive interaction with corrections officers, the beatings and stabbings, the torture of solitary confinement and the many challenges of returning to the outside world. THIRTEEN conducted this exclusive interview with Bill Moyers.
Q: What is Rikers and what leads to incarceration there instead of one of the prisons in upstate New York?
Rikers Island is New York City’s largest jail. It’s situated right there in New York’s East River – you can easily see it when you land on the main runway at LaGuardia Airport. It’s within sight of the Empire State Building – so close and yet so far from most of our daily lives. It’s a jail, not a prison, so essentially it’s a vast holding pen. Get arrested and you’ll likely be held at Rikers if you can’t make bail, and would you believe, in about 40% of the incidents, bail is less than $1,000 about 40% of the time? You become a detainee – incarcerated, held while you wait for trial, or a plea bargain. And because the criminal justice system is so choked, you can end up spending months, even years, on Rikers. Of the more than 7,500 people jailed at Rikers during the time we were filming, almost 80% have not yet been convicted of the charges against them. Once they are sentenced, they are usually transferred to a prison to serve the time.
Q: Media outlets have reported on the abuses and corruption at Rikers. How did Rikers become so untethered from the law and standard regulations?
Lots of reasons. One is that most of us are oblivious to what happens inside our jails and prisons. Life there is not on our monitor. So as conditions worsened, and abuses mounted, there was very little public scrutiny or outcry. In one of his plays Tom Stoppard says that people do terrible things to each other, but it’s worse when they’re done in the dark – that is, out of sight. There have been times when Rikers was overcrowded. The drug trade increased the number of detainees. Violence between inmates and between inmates and guards escalated. There was some great reporting about what was happening – in the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine, by the Marshall Project, and on WNYC and NY1.
But the nature of the print media meant that the testimony of the detainees of necessity was filtered through the journalists. We wanted to explore the human toll by letting former detainees speak in their own words and in their own voice. That’s how we came to give them the chance to describe their own experience directly to camera. It seems obvious to me that if the public is going to support reform for Rikers, we need to understand what is happening on the island with our tax dollars, in our name, and purportedly for our safety. So we thought we could add another dimension to the superb print coverage of Rikers by giving former inmates a chance to be heard in their own right. This film was produced solely from their perspective. It’s not the whole story of Rikers, but it’s a part of the story few of us know and all of us must come to understand.
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.”
Q: Through your career, from working closely with President Lyndon B. Johnson in his administration, to publishing Newsday, to your many years of creating programs for PBS, how has your view of criminal justice and social justice evolved?
Starting with my work on the Civil Rights Act of l964 and the Voting Rights Act of l965, I began to see the racial structure of the criminal justice system. In one way I had seen the divide as a cub reporter for the daily newspaper in my home town in Texas 60 years ago. The city jail was one of my beats. It was in the basement of city hall. I would go by to pick up the weekly list of who had been arrested, who was behind bars. Almost all of the prisoners were African Americans. The offense was usually inebriation. I asked Shorty Blackmon, the deputy police chief, if whites didn’t drink as much as blacks (I knew they did, because my uncle was more often behind bars for drunkenness than any other fellow in town), and he said: “Sure, but we don’t have enough cells to lock every body up. Black folks get preference.” In other words, white folks got off lightly. There’s a brilliant young scholar today who says criminal justice is the sharp edge of American racism. I’m seeing that he’s right.