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Experience ‘RIKERS,’ Face To Face

Above Photo: NEW YORK, NY – JULY 02:  Cecily McMillan, Occupy Wall Street Activist, makes a speech to members of the press as she is released from Rikers on July 2, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Rob Kim/WireImage)

Over the years I have landed at New York’s LaGuardia Airport knowing that the island just off and below the tip of the right wing was Rikers, the city’s largest jail, isolated in the East River within sight of the Manhattan skyline and separated from the borough of Queens by a single bridge. Looking across at the stark jumble of buildings, I had often thought of Alcatraz, on the other side of the continent: penal colonies framing America’s gateways.

Alcatraz, however, has long been closed and is now a favorite tourist destination. Rikers remains chock full of detainees awaiting their day in court (if it ever comes) or, once convicted, a bus trip to an upstate prison. From time to time reports of abuse and cruelty against inmates, or of violent confrontations between them and their guards, or brawls among gangs – aroused curiosity among the “mainland” public, but rarely for very long.

Then, in recent years, the trickle of reports became a torrent. Some brilliant journalism by The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York magazine and the New York Daily News, among others, coupled with growing awareness and outrage by local activists, including the advocacy group #CloseRikers, prompted attention from the city’s independent commission, a federal investigation and intimations of reform. But reports persist of terrible things happening there, in our name, with our tax dollars, reputedly for our “safety.” As I have followed the news, some research revealed that television had given no extended attention to what was happening on Rikers and that my medium could add an important dimension to the coverage by giving the public a chance to hear directly from the inmates themselves, face to face.

I reached out to some longtime colleagues — the independent and oft-awarded filmmakers Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin at Brick City TV, joined now by producer Rolake Bamgbose — who were soon at work, identifying scores of former detainees and interviewing many of them on camera for hours. The result is a vivid arc of life on Rikers as told by the people who experienced it — from the trauma of entry, the conflicts with other inmates and corrections officers, the stabbings and beatings, and the torture of solitary confinement to the psychological challenges of returning to the outside world.

Our work is done. RIKERS will premiere on THIRTEEN on Nov. 15 at 10 p.m. ET.

We have screened the film for a handful of people who have spent years advocating for reform of America’s criminal justice system, including Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights activist and acclaimed author of the best-selling book Just Mercy. He said, “No one understands the crisis created by mass incarceration and excessive punishment like the survivors who have endured the horrors created by our criminal justice policies. We cannot be responsible citizens, voters or decision-makers without understanding the stories these men and women share. Watch this film.”

See for yourself: Watch the trailer above and tune in next month. National broadcasts on PBS will be announced in the Spring of 2017.

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