Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Documentary About New York City’s Island-Jail Complex ‘Represents What Rikers Truly Is’

Victoria Law

Rikers is the first documentary to tell the stories of the infamous jail solely through the voices of those who have spent years there.

Of the nearly 10,000 people locked up on Rikers Island each day, nearly 80 percent have not been found guilty of any crime. Instead, they are there awaiting trial—a wait that can last anywhere from six months to three years. More than half of these pre-trial detainees are on New York City’s island-jail complex because their families cannot afford bail amounts of less than $1,000. Forty percent of those on the island have mental health diagnoses.

These are the statistics that open Rikers, a new documentary by journalist Bill Moyers. It is the first documentary to tell the experiences of New York City’s infamous jail solely through the voices of those who have spent years there. “We need to see the faces of these people,” said Moyers at the film’s premiere at the DOC NYC festival on Saturday. “We need to hear their stories in their voices, not filtered through a journalist.”
Through more than a dozen alternating voices, Rikers does just that. Most of those featured in the film are men, who make up about 94 percent of those detained on the island. Two women are interviewed. No trans or gender-nonconforming people are included, or even mentioned, though Rikers does have a trans housing unit.

Once past the opening statistics, the 64-minute documentary pushes viewers into the dehumanizing, and often violent, daily realities of being locked away on the island-jail complex. Staring directly into the camera, several men recount the initial strip-search after being driven across the 4,200-foot bridge, the island’s sole connection to the rest of the city, for the very first time. It’s the first of the many dehumanizing procedures, they say, that are a way of life on the island.

In 2014, Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, charged Rikers with promoting a “deep-seated culture of violence.” Every voice in the documentary attests to that. Ismael Nazario was a teenager when he was brought to Rikers. Shortly after his arrival, he recalls, he was jumped and beaten by several men in plain view of a correctional officer. He tells the filmmakers and audience that she allowed the beating to go on for more than a minute before telling the attackers, “That’s enough. He’s had enough.” Once the beating had stopped, he remembers her asking, “You good? You gonna hold it down?”

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It was the first time Nazario heard the phrase. It would not be the last. He quickly learned, he says, that it meant, “Are you going to keep your mouth shut and not report your injuries?”

Others have similar stories: The night before a court date, Raymond Yu called his mother. As he was talking, another man told him that he couldn’t use that phone. Yu ignored him; the man cut his face with a razor and disappeared. The officer on duty, Yu says, asked if he wanted to go to the infirmary. At first, Yu was surprised, but quickly wised up. Despite the blood pouring from the cut, whose mark appears on his face throughout the documentary, he declined.

The violence was not limited to the men’s units. Kathy Morse saw brutal fights between women. Rather than breaking up the fights, she tells viewers that the officers stood there and watched. “If you tried to break up the fight, you’d get a ticket,” she recounts to filmmakers.

Speaking to Rewire ten years after her incarceration at Rikers, she added, “To this day, I can still smell the blood from that girl having her head slammed against the floor repeatedly. I’m getting nauseous just talking about it.”

Violence also came at the hands of jail staff, which the documentary also explores. Men describe physical violence, including being beaten by multiple officers as well as being hog-tied with their arms and legs twisted behind their backs.

Then there’s the threat of sexual violence. The U.S. Department of Justice found that the rate of sexual victimization, by either staff or other incarcerated people, in Rikers’ women’s unit was 8.6 percent, compared to 3.2 percent in jails nationwide. And these are just the numbers that are reported. Morse says she did not report being gang-raped by four women, who accused her of being a snitch. “You can’t report it,” she told filmmakers. Reporting would not have guaranteed her safety; in 2015, a review of 46 sexual abuse cases that had been closed by Rikers jail investigators found major problems with the thoroughness of the investigations.

Candie Hailey-Means, who spent three years on Rikers before being acquitted of all charges, describes onscreen three officers entering her cell, throwing her against the wall, and sexually assaulting her. As she tells it, she shouted, “Help! They’re raping me! They’re raping me!” A woman in a neighboring cell, she says, heard her cries and came to her rescue, yelling through her own door that she was going to report the officers to her lawyer. The attack stopped; the officers left.

Then there’s punitive segregation, more popularly known as solitary confinement: the practice of keeping people locked in a small cell for at least 23 hours each day. The documentary notes that, in 2015, more than 3,000 people had been placed in punitive segregation while at Rikers. Interviewees talk about being held in segregation for 30 days, 90 days, or, in the case of Hector “Benny” Custio, four years. They describe how the isolation broke down their mental health as they counted cockroaches and paint cracks to keep their minds occupied; several recount hallucinating.

“I’m not going to say I lost my sanity, but it was being chipped away little by little,” recalls Navario, who, as a teenager, spent more than 300 days in solitary. “You have to keep your milk carton in the toilet to keep it cold, and it’s the same place you take a dump.”

Though only 64 minutes long, Rikers packs a punch. These are not easy stories to hear and, by the gasps of the premiere’s audience, are not commonly known realities.

“It’s important for the voices of people who are directly impacted to be heard by the general public,” stated Johnny Perez, who was first sent to Rikers as a 16-year-old, in an interview with Rewire. While it was difficult talking about his experiences in solitary and his interactions with jail staff, some of whom he says sold him drugs and threatened him when he was unable to pay promptly, he told Rewire, “I hope that [the film] brings stories from those that are directly impacted to the average American citizen sitting in their living room who has only been fed [ideas about incarceration] by the mainstream media. We need to get our voices into these hard-to-reach places.”

Morse was not given permission to attend the premiere by her parole officer. Speaking to Rewire by phone the next morning, she noted that the number of women in jails has been increasing though conversations about mass incarceration continue to largely center men. She wants to break through that invisibility and dispel any illusions that women behind bars have an easier time than their male counterparts. Morse is one of the two women interviewed in the film and the only white woman. “I want to break the stereotype of who is incarcerated,” she told Rewire. “Incarceration is slowly creeping into suburbia, whether it’s your household or your neighbor or your co-worker. But if we don’t talk about it, we won’t be making any real reform.” She hopes that her presence in the documentary dispels the idea that mass incarceration is an issue that affects only people of color.

At the same time, speaking out is part of her own healing process, and she hopes that it will help others who have experienced similar violence in their own healing. “People have come up to me and said, ‘That happened to me when I was in,'” she recalled. “There are people in the community who have experienced this and just aren’t ready to talk about it.”

All of those who attended the premiere told Rewire that they want to shed light not only on the jail, but the city’s policies that have encouraged incarceration as a solution to its social problems. “This film represents what Rikers truly is—the Ellis Island for all of New York City’s social ills,” said Five Mualimm-ak, who spent ten months at Rikers. Now the director of Incarceration Nation, which assists those who have spent time in solitary, he added, “This is how we address mental illness, substance abuse, and other social ills—with containment.”

Damian Stapleton, who spent a year at Rikers, told Rewire that he wants to see widespread changes and reforms. “People are sitting on Rikers Island for three, five, six years,” he pointed out, reiterating that the majority of those on the island are awaiting trial. “They been away from their families for all that time. They’re dehumanized, strip-searched, and for what? For an assumption.”

Marcell Neal, also formerly incarcerated on Rikers, agreed. He’s hoping that the documentary sparks broader discussions around bail reform, living conditions, and solitary confinement.

Rikers comes at a time when calls to close the jail are garnering more attention. Some advocates propose expanding jails in other boroughs to accommodate the larger numbers held pre-trial. But, at the post-premiere Q&A, Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said that he hoped that the film will inspire people to think “in a more nuanced way” rather than call for replacing Rikers with new jails. Some of these ways include advancing bail reforms so that people can be kept from languishing behind bars while awaiting their day in court. He also advocated creating more resources for people with mental illnesses. “Right now we send them to Rikers and that makes no sense,” he said.

“There are so many resources in New York City beyond detention,” Stevenson, who lives and works in Alabama, pointed out. These resources can enable people to address the issues underlying their arrests and provide support as they confront the legal system.

Rikers will be presented on WNET, channel 13, on Tuesday, November 15 at 10 p.m; check local listings. 

CORRECTION: Due to a Department of Correction data error, this piece originally contained an error concerning the number of people in punitive segregation at Rikers.

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Jail, LGBTQ, Media, Movies, prison, Violence

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