Marc Levin, an independent Emmy-award winning filmmaker, and Bill Moyers, renowned journalist and commentator, came together last year with the idea to make a documentary about Rikers Island prison.

The Center for Rights and Justice presented a discussion and preview screening of the Bill Moyers Film Rikers, which premieres on PBS in May. Rikers Island is home to several notorious New York City jails known for their culture of violence and inhumane living conditions.

Levin and Amanda Masters, Deputy Counsel for the New York City Public Advocate, spoke about the film to an audience at Cardozo School of Law Wednesday, Feb. 8. Masters previously served as Acting Executive Director and Deputy Executive Director of the NYC Board of Correction, an independent agency with oversight of New York City’s jails. 

Professor Alexander Reinert, director of Cardozo’s Center for Rights and Justice, served as moderator. Last year, Reinert represented plaintiffs in a class-action settlement that resulted in significant reforms to solitary confinement practices in New York prisons.

The film is a tapestry of narratives from people who served time in Rikers Island facilities, offering firsthand accounts of life in the jails there, its challenges and the mental and physical anguish people experience at one of the largest jail systems in the country.

The filmmakers made the decision to feature a series of first-hand accounts from detainees, and not include footage from inside the jail, according to Levin. “It was really about casting,” said the filmmaker. “I was skeptical it could work. We needed dynamic storytellers who would be just as powerful as actually being in the prison itself.

As the production developed, Levin said he wanted viewers to come away with a true understanding of what Rikers is like. Many of the inmates who get released return within a matter of years for other crimes. “It’s like spending $1 billion to make people worse,” Levin noted.

The film’s principal interviewees talk about the degradation one starts to feel while at Rikers, the culture of violence that is unavoidable.  Many spoke of feeling like it was necessary to participate in order to survive. One inmate said the facility causes a person to slowly unravel. “You find yourself doing things normal people don’t do,” he said.