Documentarians Jon Alpert and Nina Rosenblum spent more than 10 months focusing on Rikers Island prisoners whose pedigrees range from addiction to madness. Less probing than Frederick Wiseman’s remarkable cinema verite studies of American institutions, the taped “Lock-Up” delivers a slate of warnings with a punch.
Part of the “America Undercover” series, program grimly warns, “If you are arrested in New York City and cannot make bail, welcome to Rikers Island.” Alpert and Rosenblum, who use title cards instead of a narrator, spotlight a handful of the 17,000 individuals caught in emotional and economic doldrums.
Jimmy, an AIDS patient, born in prison to a mother who was addicted, has been repeatedly caught burglarizing. Up for release, he’ll be judged by his career when he was on the outside; it looks like he’s doomed to die in the AIDS unit of the jailhouse.
Killer Eddie faces a judge on two escape capers. He’s already in for 200 years, so it doesn’t make any difference if he’s found guilty again. “Since they gave me all this time, I feel I’m above the law.”
“Why is it people with money don’t suffer this kind of jail?” asks one desolate prisoner. In the disturbed ward, an inmate observes that “cell therapy is when you get in your cell and you have nothing to do.” No writing materials, no radios — just the grayness.
Jackie, 22, pregnant and addicted, is freed and returns; Nancy, who gives birth at Rikers, can’t believe Jackie would fall and be back. Jackie agrees: “I can’t understand it myself.” Nancy is also trapped. She proudly displays photos of her daughter, granddaughter and husband, but she’s hooked. “I did for my addiction what I would never have done for my kids.”
Cameras visit the gay world in the jailhouse, and the violent spots, and the same thought keeps surfacing: These people are just shelved.
The grim docu trudges on down the Rikers Island corridors lighting up the true problem: It’s easier to salt the offenders away at $ 58,000 a year than to put them in a drug rehab residence for $ 17,000. Though it’s not mentioned during the hour, this spring there was a riot; the disturbing docu demonstrates why.
As Nancy so plaintively says at the end of the program, “This is no place to be.”