It can only be accessed by a single bridge, an island that sits in the East River, just off the runway of LaGuardia Airport, one of the nation’s busiest, that serves as a cruel reminder to the incarcerated in New York City’s notorious Rikers Island correctional facility. Now a new documentary, RIKERS, from award-winning journalist Bill Moyers sets out to expose the human toll of a facility that critics have long demanded the city shutdown. The documentary is about what those in the inside have experienced but while focused on their incarceration the film is really an exposé on human rights. For there is little human about what occurs on Rikers Island.
“That’s not living, that’s just existing” is how one of the subjects in RIKERS describes the experience of being locked up in this overpopulated and dangerous facility. Moyers turns the camera on more than a dozen former detainees who tell their stories, unfiltered, in the brutally stark reality of life behind bars on the island. More than 7,500 people are incarcerated on Rikers Island but almost 80% have not been convicted of the charges brought against them. Over half the detainees cannot make bail, on average less than $1,000. Rikers is a place of abandonment, where the innocent is treated as guilty, and a person can easily be forgotten in a facility that operates on the principle of containment not justice, and certainly not rehabilitation. RIKERS shows that surviving is the only thing that matters and the weak are easy prey.
Bill Moyer says, “Rikers Island jail has been engulfed in controversy, and brilliant journalism by The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine and New York Daily News and the Marshall Project, among others, has reported on the cruelty, abuse and corruption at this island penal colony surrounded by the city’s boroughs. But largely missing have been the voices of the detainees themselves. We set out to fill that gap and bring a new dimension to public understanding of what is taking place in our name. with our tax dollars, purportedly for our safety.”
Through this documentary we learn of the horrors of life, if you can call it that, on Rikers Island. We are told of the violence, the sheer brutality that occurs on a daily basis; between inmates and inflicted by corrections officers upon the detained. One of the subjects talks about an incident in which an inmate was attacked, burned by scolding hot water and how his attacker literally pulled the victim’s face off. We hear about a vicious attack in a cell upon a female inmate, stomped by her attackers to the point of losing consciousness. The attack was so vicious the subject who viewed the violence laments that she “can’t get rid of the smell of blood” from her senses.
RIKERS also teaches us that the system treats all the same. A white female from Livingston, a toney suburb in New Jersey, shares her experience as an inmate. Convicted for stealing money from a trust account, she was arrested with her daughter in her car. Tagged a “snitch,” she was raped in the shower by four female inmates. She did not report the incident. Instead she had conversations with her deceased father, telling him “how I wanted to come up there with him. How I wanted to be safe.”
The documentary also describes the power relationships on Rikers Island. Gangs rule and correction officers not only look the other way but often work hand-in-hand with the facility’s worst elements. “You alright?” or “You gonna hold it down?” is the universal code reminding inmates who have been brutalized of the penalty for reporting incidents. An elaborate enforcement hierarchy exists that forces inmates to comply or face the violence that comes with no protection. Privileges are handed out in exchange for favors, and those that don’t agree to the terms can expect to be assaulted.
Many of those being held on Rikers Island have been abused themselves and there is little help they are going to receive in the facility. Subjects spoke of the noise in the facility, the constant auditory assault and being driven to the breaking point. One subject described hearing an inmate in the next cell being brutally beaten by corrections officers, hearing the cries of the inmate but that it was business as usual after the assault. Another talked of getting revenge upon a corrections officer by spraying the unsuspecting guard with feces and urine the inmate had been collecting in a milk carton, payback for the guard’s holding back the detainee’s food. The same inmate spoke of having to put milk cartoons in the toilet to keep them cold.
Mental health issues plague the detainees. To make matters worse the use of solitary confinement, placing inmates in “the hole,” pushes isolated detainees to the point of suicide. Subjects in the documentary talk about the mental deterioration that comes with solitary confinement, the hallucinations that caused one subject to mistake a maggot for a grain of rice that she thought was moving. One subject spent almost 4 years in solitary.
What RIKERS exposes is a facility that is past its useful life, an institution that is as bad, if not worse, than the offenses many of the incarcerated are alleged to have committed or for which they have been convicted. It is a place where the innocent often spends years behind bars. It is a place where violence is routine, as one subject said “the alternative to violence is more violence.” Once in transit on the bridge to Rikers Island, the only concern is surviving. As the mother of one of the subjects pleaded to him during his incarceration, “Do what you have to do to survive but make it home in one piece.”
RIKERS will premiere at DOCNYC, the New York City documentary film festival on November 12th and then will be presented on public television on November 15th at 10:00 pm on the city’s WNET-13.