Your information that you've gathered here today should be spread to 10 more people. You've got to get the word out that people are being treated less than human. —Barry Campbell
Led by executive editor Bill Moyers, 'Rikers: An American Jail' aired on PBS in 2017, winning the Robert F. Kennedy Media Advocacy Award and quickly inserting itself into the debate over the future of the notorious New York City jail facility. Consisting entirely of first-hand accounts of incarceration on Rikers Island, the film presents a stark and disturbing portrait.
In June 2018, as part of its "Spaces of Justice" series, Open House New York held a public screening and discussion of the film. The evening was moderated by our New Thinking host, Matt Watkins. The conversation was about the film, the urgency of criminal justice reform, and New York City’s pledge to replace the facilities on Rikers with a series of smaller, community-based jails, a reform advocated by the Independent Commission on Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, whose work we helped to coordinate.
On the panel were Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society; Jill Harris, policy and strategy counsel with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office; and two people who both experienced incarceration on Rikers and whose accounts are featured in the film: Barry Campbell, special assistant at the Fortune Society; and Johnny Perez, director of the U.S. Prisons Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.
Along with a focus on the hardships the violence and isolation of Rikers imposes on the people detained there, as well as on their families and the correction officers who guard them, one overarching question framed the discussion. While many promising changes have long been underway in New York City—even with its largest jail still years away from its promised closure—could replacing Rikers Island be the catalyst for a more root-and-branch reform of the system, and the opportunity to meaningfully address the harms caused by decades of an over-reliance on incarceration, especially to communities of color?