MOVIES/Ed Rampell

Bill Moyers and Tim Robbins: 'We Are the Jailhouse Nation of the World.'

At a recent screening of a new documentary, Rikers, An American Jail, actor and activist Tim Robbins declared, “[Attorney General Jeff] Sessions wants to send us back 15 years.”

In light of “mountains of evidence that we over-incarcerate” men and women for nonviolent crimes, Robbins said, Sessions’s tough-on-crime agenda is “a total disaster in the making.”

Rikers, a documentary film from Bill Moyers, condemns the barbarity of Rikers Island, New York’s notorious correctional institution.

The documentary was shown May 15 at the Culver City theater of The Actors’ Gang, of which Robbins is the founder and artistic director. Its presentation, prior to Rikers’ May 23 airing on L.A.’s PBS station, was a fundraiser for a related endeavor of Robbins’, Actors’ Gang Prison Project, which seeks to rehabilitate prisoners through drama workshops.

After the screening I spoke with Robbins and Moyers about their mutual distress over the current Attorney General’s opposition to bipartisan prison reform.

“Sessions is going back to a policy that has failed, and that was on the road to reform, and with broad support from both rightwing and leftwing. Both Democrats and Republicans were close to passing some significant prison reform [legislation],” Robbins said.

“In the past, judges could use their discretion, but with mandatory sentencing it’s like a death sentence for lots of people,” lamented Robbins, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River, which dramatized violent crime’s effects. “The only thing that gives me a little bit of hope is that [Sessions’s policies] are a federal mandate and it does not apply to the states. The more progressive states can continue to reform their sentencing guidelines.”

Moyers agreed. “We were making lots of progress in this nation in the conversation about incarceration. Most people recognized we have a crisis. There are too many people in our jails and prisons, 2.3 million of us. We are the jailhouse nation of the world. And everyone recognizes what the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University said recently, that 39 percent of the people in jail and prisons do not need to be there. There are alternative methods of dealing with people who have committed soft crimes, nonviolent crimes, and crimes of possession that are no threat to anyone else.”

Moyers railed against Sessions’s obstructionist role even prior to his current appointment:

“Before the election, there were Democrats and Republicans in Congress who were beginning a discussion about bipartisan prison reform: Do something about bail; find an alternative for people who are mentally ill; find a way of treating people who are alcoholic and addicted. That discussion was growing in Washington before the election. Now Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are calling for a regressive return to ‘lock them up and throw away the key’ for minor drug possessions; keep the alcoholics and addicts in prison. They’re going back to the war on drugs, which contributed to the rapid increase in incarceration over the last thirty years. It’s a retrograde, uninformed, stupid policy. But it has put a quietus on the discussion about reform in Washington.”

Discussing Sessions’s goal to remove consent decrees and other oversight of police departments, Moyers commented, “That too is blind folly, taking not one, but two and three steps back into the past.”

“It’ll be harmful to police in the long run, if they continue to have a crisis of confidence between police and citizens,” he said. “Mass incarceration is the sharp edge of American racism. African Americans are arrested at a rate six times that of whites. Hispanics are arrested at a rate two times that of whites. There’s no question but that incarceration falls heaviest on people of color, the poor, marginalized people and people with mental illness. You can’t wrestle with and solve that problem if you’re carrying on a fearful campaign against the very people you most want to help, those who need police protection in the inner cities, on the streets. To turn this back into a war between police and citizens is a serious mistake.”

On a more hopeful note, Moyers described efforts in California such as Prop 47, a successful 2014 California ballot initiative that reclassified some nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies, as well as efforts in other states, where “there’s a vigorous discussion going on about what to do about incarceration.”

“I was recently in Louisiana, which has a larger prison population per capita than any state in the union and any country in the world,” he said. “And they’re talking seriously about what do we do about reforms. It’s going to be hard, but simple reforms are possible that will reduce the prison population without diminishing citizens’ safety.”

Rikers, An American Jail aired on PBS stations in May. See:

Ed Rampell is a film historian and critic based in Los Angeles. Rampell is the author of "Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States.” he co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” and he is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info:

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2017

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