Sometimes Rikers Island shows up on MTA maps. Sometimes it’s unmarked, a little beige birthmark in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. Sometimes it’s circled, or colored in with red marker, or overlaid with a sticker by a guerrilla cartographer. In the station closest to my apartment, in Brooklyn, someone’s drawn an arrow to the island and scrawled the words, “Home away from home.” Rikers Island is both an enigma and an ongoing public relations crisis, a scab just barely covering a wound. In March, after years of increasingly horrific stories describing the conditions in the island’s ten jails, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to permanently close Rikers within the next decade.
“What’s really hard about Rikers is the smell,” Jon Alpert remarked on Monday night at the Metrograph, where his 1994 documentary, Lock-Up: The Prisoners of Rikers Island, was presented free of charge as part of “NOW,” a series of films (running through Thursday) that inspired the Safdie brothers’ upcoming crime drama, Good Time, out Friday. Prior to Lock-Up, the Metrograph screened another of Alpert’s early documentaries, 1989’s One Year in a Life of Crime, an hour-long film centered on three twentysomething “professional shoplifters” in Newark, New Jersey.
Alpert, the co-founder of the Downtown Community Television Center in Lower Manhattan, appeared alongside Josh Safdie and Robert Pattinson, who stars as a bank robber in Good Time and who claimed to have seen One Year “many, many times” in preparation for the film. Both One Year and Lock-Up — which originally aired as part of an HBO series called “America Undercover” — are fascinating snapshots of the criminal justice system and the people who have been inextricably swept up in it since childhood. But they’re also, inescapably, relics of a time when cameras were clunky and obvious, when people hadn’t quite learned to reflexively moderate — or exaggerate — their behavior for an audience, either real or perceived. The production values may be “primitive,” as Alpert said, but the director had good access. “They tried to keep us from seeing anything except people smiling,” he recalled of the Rikers documentary. They failed.
Lock-Up begins with a white-on-black card: “If you are arrested in New York City and cannot make bail,” it reads, “welcome to Rikers Island.” Although Rikers now holds close to ten thousand inmates, in 1994, it was home to 17,000 people, 92 percent black and Hispanic, and 90 percent of whom hadn’t graduated from high school. Alpert wanders the halls with his camera, snatching scenes of everyday life behind bars. We enter the jail’s makeshift barbershop and the laundry facilities. We watch a pair of pregnant women make grilled cheese sandwiches using an iron. We visit the “gay housing” unit, where men sleep in separate cells rather than in a dorm with the others, presumably for their protection.
We see a shambling, chaotic scene of new inmates being booked. We see guards searching cells for contraband; one guard finds a bag of pink powder that he pours down the toilet — some extra Kool-Aid swiped by an inmate who works in the mess. Later, the COs show Alpert a shiv they found hidden in the cell of an inmate who’s eventually punished with ninety days in solitary confinement. Alpert asks the CO if he would try to get a weapon were he in jail. “Of course,” the guard responds.
Later, an inmate tells Alpert that because he’s there, the COs are handling them “with kid gloves.” The remark indicates the paradox of capturing the truth about what goes on in prisons and jails. Even the luckiest documentarian invited to freely roam the halls of a jail can’t guarantee that the result is an accurate depiction of prison life. In 2000, Jennifer Gonnerman, who wrote the 2014 New Yorker article on Kalief Browder — the young man who was detained on Rikers for three years without a trial and who killed himself shortly after his release — wrote a feature on Rikers for the Village Voice in which she describes the “forced falseness” of an exchange she witnessed between a sullen 17-year-old inmate and a guard. “In this sense,” she writes, “all prison reporting is a lie, and the best one may hope for is a set of half-truths or an unscripted moment that reveals what is supposed to remain hidden.”
Just as all of civilization has learned the importance of tempering one’s behavior lest an errant remark be caught on a grainy cell phone camera, agencies like the Department of Correction have learned how damaging the wrong kind of recording can be. These days, practically the only footage coming out of Rikers arrives in the form of leaked surveillance-camera videos documenting the kind of scenes that have led to calls for its closure.
A closer contemporary analogue to Alpert’s work in Lock-Up can only be found in fiction. From The Wire to Oz to Orange Is the New Black to The Night Of to Good Time, there are plenty of television series and films that offer a glimpse into the reality of life in New York’s correctional facilities. But it’s no substitute for the real thing, however “primitive.” Fiction, we often hear, inspires empathy; it forces us to imagine what it might be like to live in another person’s world. It helps us appreciate the humanness of society’s least wanted, so long as we view them through the mediating presence of actors, an implicit assurance that none of this is real.