Rikers High Examines Life of Teen Inmates


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Filmmaker Victor Buhler presented an abridged version of his Showtime documentary “Rikers High” at a screening last Friday hosted by the Child Advocacy Program (CAP). The movie traced the lives of three black teens doing time in New York’s Rikers Island, focusing on their experiences in the prison high school, Island Academy.

Rikers Island is the largest penal colony in the United States, with over 14,000 inmates. 2,000 of those inmates are 18 years-old or younger, and live in separate areas.

All three young men in the film – Andre Blandon, Shawn Johnson, and William Santiago – struggled to use the resources within the Academy to positively influence their future. While the Academy offered regular education courses with the goal of each student earning a GED, the film spent more time looking at the life skills and counseling elements of the program.

“You already know there are consequences when you deviate from the norm,” said one teacher to a class reading a graphic novel of Frankenstein.

Andre, a dreamer who earned his GED in Rikers, drew a comic series he called “Andre’s World.” He tried to explain to a school counselor that although he liked to escape into this imaginary world, he realized it was all in his head. He would give some of his drawings to the other teens in order to be left alone.

Shawn was the valedictorian of his GED year at Island Academy. A thoughtful philosopher and poet, he told his release planner that he wanted to go to college. She pushed him on why he wanted to go and what he would do with a college degree, apparently incredulous that he had offered that option without prompting.

Much of the portion that focused on Santiago dealt with his life once he had been released. His school counselor had urged him to focus and get his GED while in prison, but the 17-year-old returned home without a degree to face challenges of life on the other side – a pregnant girlfriend, no job, and a marijuana habit that violated his parole.

The film also showed reactions of the prison personnel. One corrections officer spoke with great empathy for the teenage prisoners.

“You have to show a certain love for these kids,” he said, adding that the school is meant to help them so “[T]hey won’t return to a system that’s so destructive and enslaving.”

After the conclusion of the movie, the audience pressed the director for more information about its stars. Although Shawn’s teacher said of him, “he’s not allowing time to do him,” Shawn quickly stopped attending community college and now works at a White Castle.

He was the success story. Andre was transferred to the adult facility for the last few months of his sentence and then returned to prison for stealing from a convenience store. Santiago went back to jail for six months for violating his probation.

“One of the biggest issues when these guys go out, is there’s very little that helps them,” Buhler observed. “We’re good at punishing them, but not at rewarding them. There were few entry programs that have any effect.”

Eight out of ten of the youths in the system are rearrested within the year. Buhler, however, held out hope for Shawn, who returned home to his mom and sisters.

“Shawn, I don’t think he’s going to go back. He’s a bright guy. He had some sort of support system, and that makes all the difference.”

The director’s goal in making the film was to show the wasted potential of these youths.

“In a different situation, these guys could be in college,” Buhler said. “Shawn could be in Harvard maybe. I wanted people to feel personally connected to these guys in jail and stimulate discussion.”

He characterized prison as “an awful and useless place” and “an epic wait.”

“Only 3% of inmates are violent criminals. Rikers Island has become a shelter system. They close mental hospitals and homeless shelters, and these guys are ending up there.”

Buhler discussed the rampant profiteering in the prison, in which an individual cigarette can fetch $10 on the black market. He characterized the system as a form of corrupted capitalism in which everyone fights over a few resources, like access to the phone.

“It’s a vicious pyramidal system, built on the few pushing the many down.”

The movie used occasional text boxes to introduce the teens and to provide statistics about the penal system, but had no voiceovers. The camera was able to follow the youth throughout the prison, even into the showers.

“We had to get releases from them and their guardians, not to mention the Department of Corrections,” said the director. “We needed a lot of access without voiceovers.”

Many audience members questioned the film’s lack of comment about the racial composition of the prison. Buhler acknowledged that there were huge racial connotations, including among the staff.

“Everyone there is a minority, and corrections officers often feel protective.”

Buhler emphasized that the unabridged, 90-minute version of the film looks at the prisoners reactions to the system in greater depth and introduces other inmates not seen in the truncated hour-long version. The full-length movie is currently on the Showtime Network and available on loan from the CAP office.

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