Sammy Westfall

As 80 viewers packed into a classroom at the Yale Law School on Friday evening, former inmates detailed their experiences in a film that criticized conditions at Rikers Island, a New York City correctional facility.

Bill Moyers’ documentary “Rikers: An American Jail” was screened as part of the Yale Student Film Festival amid the #CLOSErikers movement — a conversation that the presenters hoped to bring closer to campus. The screening was followed by a panel discussion, where the producer and documentary subjects discussed the creation of the film, the experience of incarceration and activism for criminal justice reform.

The panel was moderated by Emily Bazelon ’93 LAW ’00, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and an instructor at the Yale Law School. On the panel were Cadeem Gibbs, a community organizer who was formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island; Miriam Gohara, an associate professor at Yale Law School who has spent 16 years representing death-sentenced clients in post-conviction litigation; and Judy Doctoroff, the executive producer of “Riker” and an Emmy Award winner.

“I was actually kind of taken aback that the stories were woven together in a way that actually told one story, which was like the story of Rikers Island,” Gibbs said. “It wasn’t like my one experience or this person’s story. I think it was an essential truth. The one thing that stood out to me was just the general consistency of the culture of violence that was perpetuated.”

The film focused on the stories of several prisoners who had been held at Rikers and interspersed videos of their interviews with images of the facility. Many of them detailed abuse by the guards and other prisoners, as well as the conditions they faced in solitary confinement.

Doctoroff wanted to focus exclusively on telling the stories of people who had been incarcerated. At the end of the film, she included information about their current lives. Some were working with other former prisoners on re-entry, but some had returned to Rikers. One man, who was beaten by guards, died days before receiving his settlement payment from the state after winning a lawsuit.

Gibbs said he was compelled to tell his story in the film because he wanted to humanize the issue of incarceration for the public. In addition, he said, recounting his experience on Rikers Island to the film team served as a therapeutic process.

“What I want people to take away from the film is that this issue is much larger than just Rikers or any particular facility,” Gibbs said. “A common theme we see in these facilities and mass incarceration is that people are routinely and perpetually punished for being poor.”

Doctoroff’s journey to create the film began with a simple journalistic question: What was actually going on in Rikers? She read news reports about the conditions on Rikers Island, but in none of that reporting did she hear the “pure voices” of the people who had been directly affected by incarceration. She felt that the best way to understand what was going on there was to talk to these people directly.

After the film’s release, Doctoroff was continually asked why the film team did not include the voices of correctional officers or the Department of Corrections.

“We didn’t want to diffuse the voices of those who had been impacted in any way. We didn’t want to set up this he-said-she-said thing,” Doctoroff said. “There are enough venues where the official voices were being heard, but the voices of the people who were impacted were not being heard.”

Gohara, the Yale law professor, shared some of her visceral reactions after watching the movie.

As she recounted stories of traumatic strip searches, abuse, violence and insomnia conveyed in the film, she said the movie made her “physically sick …  literally sick.”

Some of the New Haven residents at the screening also had emotional reactions to the film and decided afterward to sign up for the Rikers Debate Project, a program that brings debate classes to inmates at prisons in New York, Washington and Connecticut. Pooja Mathur, who lives in New Haven, said that she believes in prison abolition and wants to participate more in the movement after watching the movie.

Reed Miller GRD ’22 appreciated how the film relayed the voices of the men and women who endured incarceration on Rikers without an academic or journalistic lens clouding their experiences.

After the documentary, the panelists briefly discussed the #CLOSErikers campaign, which aims to mobilize New Yorkers against the prison and argues that piecemeal reform will never put an end to the human rights violations at the facility.

“Criminal justice reform is an incredibly exciting issue to be thinking about and working on right now because things are changing,” Bazelon said.

She also noted that hearing stories about the people who get caught up in the criminal justice system can cause attitudes to shift and minds to open up. Moyers’ documentary could have that eye-opening effect, she said.

Gibbs’ organization, The Roundtable Project, is also working to “raise public consciousness” about issues related to incarceration that affect the black community. At the moment, he is working on a campaign that attempts to raise awareness about the statistic that one in three African-American men will go to prison in their lifetime.

“Obviously Rikers is horrible — it has many issues — but this is really just a capsule, a small microscope into a larger issue in society,” Gibbs said.

The Yale Student Film Festival began in 2015.

Carolyn Sacco | carolyn.sacco@yale.edu

Sammy Westfall | sammy.westfall@yale.edu