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Rikers documentary provides [incarcerated individual’s] view of harrowing existence in system


“You show weakness here and you are dead. You’re not gonna make it.”

“People who are incarcerated don’t talk. Everybody screams at each other…Everyone is paranoid.”

“Every time I turned around, somebody was getting cut or stabbed. There was no rhyme or reason for it.”

“I felt like I wasn’t s—-. I felt, ‘I’m here and nobody cares.’”

These are some of the voices from the jails of Rikers Island that are heard in a new documentary from journalist Bill Moyers, “Ri­kers,” that was screened Nov. 30 at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Inmates’ View of System

In brief remarks before the viewing, Mr. Moyers said producers had started with 100 inmates and winnowed the number down to about 10. He is the only journalist shown in the movie, to provide a short introduction. No questions are aired. It’s just the inmates telling their stories to the camera, describing the pervasive violence, their relationships with correction officers and the difficulty of returning to the outside world.

Some of them are not unknown, including Mark Nu­ñez, the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit that resulted a year ago in a consent decree limiting use of force by correction officers. Another, Robert Hinton, won a $450,000 settlement from the city after a beating by COs, but was shot to death on the street shortly before he was to receive the check.

Others had been among the anonymous 7,700 or so inmates at Rikers on any given day: Kathy Morse, who embezzled $283,000 from the firm where she worked as a paralegal and now coordinates volunteer tutors at Ri­kers; Marcell Neal, who was first jailed at the age of 14 and now works with disadvantaged youth; Hector Custodio, who became a clergyman after serving a prison term upstate; and Candie Hailey-Means, who served three years at Rikers before being acquitted at trial.

Eighty percent of Rikers inmates are awaiting their day in court; the remainder are generally serving sentences of less than a year and therefore not confined in upstate prisons.

Rikers’ ‘Distinct Smell’

“There’s this distinct smell of Rikers Island,” said Raymond Yu, who spent 10 years in prison, was released and then re-arrested last January for violating parole. “It’s like a mix of bleach, dirt and grime. The bars looked dirty and dusty and the cells looked nasty.”

“I’d never been in an environment like that, just thrown in, basically, to the wolves,” said Mr. Nuñez. “I was scared.”

“I went to Rikers Island with a friend of mine,” said Barry Campbell, who now works for the Fortune Society helping ex-cons. “He had already been back and forth, but this was my first experience.”

In the dayroom of their housing unit, the friend moved away from him. “When I turned around, there were two guys coming to take my sneakers. I assumed that my friend and me was going to fight together, but it was just me fighting at the time. They wound up getting one of my sneakers. I got a black eye and busted lip and everything.”

Passed a Test

Later that night, his friend brought him back the sneaker and told him, “I had to know that you could stand up for yourself before I stand up for you.”

After seeing a bloody inmate wheeled out to an ambulance during his first minutes at Rikers, Damian Stapleton, who is now out on parole, said, “immediately I’m thinking about how I’m going to get my first weapon. I asked somebody what’s the easiest way to get a weapon. You know what he tells me? Off the fan.”

The fan sat in the corner of the dayroom, with a box of tissues next to it. He asked a CO for permission to take a tissue, and when he did he twisted off a fan blade.

Two inmates described a system dubbed “The Program” in which COs in some adolescent-housing units ceded control to tougher teens who dominated and abused their weaker fellows. Those “dayroom dummies” were forced to turn over food, commissary purchases and turns at the phone as part of a protection racket.

‘Didn’t Want to Be Them’

“When I went in the bathroom in the morning to brush my teeth, I saw the other kids that was washing people’s underwear,” said Mr. Campbell. “I didn’t want to be one of those kids that got treated badly. As soon as I walked into the house, one of the guys that was running the house slid a plastic bucket down the aisle in front of me and said, ‘That’s your new job, washing people’s underwear.’ So I picked the bucket up and smashed him across the face.”

After the death of an 18-year-old inmate who was connected to The Program, two officers pleaded guilty and a third was convicted at trial. The Department of Correction said in 2012 that the system had been broken.

Mr. Yu was slashed as he was talking to his mother on the phone. “And then the officer comes up, seeing clearly I was cut, and says, ‘Well, do you need medical attention?’ I’m cut! I said, ‘No, I don’t need medical attention.’ It’s protocol in there: we handle it ourselves.”

“I was assaulted in the shower,” Ms. Morse said, tears running down her cheeks. “By four inmates. They were determined to teach me a lesson. They heard that I was a snitch. I was sexually assaulted. I wanted to die. No, I did not report it. You can’t report it.”

The inmates discussed parallels between themselves and correction officers.

‘We’re Both Doing Time’

“There’s a saying that it doesn’t matter if you have a uniform on that says ‘Correction Officer’ or one that says ‘Inmate,’” Mr. Stapleton said. “You’re still doing time.”

“Being an inmate and being a CO is like a very thin line,” said an unidentified inmate with a long, curly black beard. “Because time stops for them too when they come to Rikers Island…There’s some COs that are real cool. There’s some COs that really understand the system and they try to prevent these young people from coming back by talking to them.”

“The majority of the officers on Rikers Island are minorities,” Mr. Stapleton said. “They come from where we come from. They grew up where we grew up at. Somehow they just never made it to prison.”

“I bought drugs from correction officers who told me they’d send me to the box if I don’t pay them, and things like that,” said another un­iden­tified inmate. “And all of that made me say, ‘Well, you’re just like me. We’re all criminals in here.’”

Shunned by Families

Inmates described obstacles thrown up after release by society, their families and even their own minds.

Ms. Morse said many relatives still won’t talk to her, and she is separated from the husband who visited her loyally when she was behind bars.

Another former inmate, who was not identified, described a decision to take a walk outside. “I just got, not even halfway down the block and I couldn’t walk any further…I went back upstairs and started crying.”

“Unless you’ve experienced coming home from jail or prison, you’ll never know what it’s like,” said Mr. Camp­bell. “You don’t know what it’s like to go looking for a job and everywhere you go, every door you open, they look at you differently and say no to you. They don’t know what it’s like to be hungry and have no food on the table for your family.”

The film, which runs 65 minutes, can be viewed in its entirety at

Source: The Chief


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