'Rikers High': Schooled Behind Bars

Victor Buhler is director of the documentary Rikers High, which profiles teens at a high school that doubles as a youth prison at New York City's notorious Rikers Island. The film premieres Wednesday on the Showtime network. Farai Chideya talks with Buhler about his film.

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Many public schools have installed metal detectors, imposed random searches as well as required students to stay on campus during the instructional day, but for students trying to earn their diploma at New York's Rikers Island prison, that kind of security is the norm. A documentary about the jail's high school won critical praise at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. "Rikers Island" debuts tonight on Showtime. NPR's Farai Chideya has this report.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

For his latest documentary, California-based filmmaker Victor Buhler traveled across the country to a small island near Manhattan, but it wasn't an idyllic vacation spot.

Mr. VICTOR BUHLER (Filmmaker): Well, Rikers is--it's almost like a city.

(Soundbite of voices)

CHIDEYA: A very chaotic city.

Mr. BUHLER: What was interesting was that there was a school there, a New York City school, and I found the irony very interesting to be in jail in this horrible place and to attend a school that was trying to--you know, sometimes it would push you up while you're being pushed down.

CHIDEYA: Within "Rikers High," we get to see the effects of one powerful teacher, Gus Rodriguez, on students including Shawn Johnson. Johnson was incarcerated at age 17 for armed robbery. Here Rodriguez leads Johnson and the rest of the class through an exercise about responsibility.

(Soundbite from "Rikers High")

Mr. GUS RODRIGUEZ (Teacher): Now one thing that I want to kind of get you to think about as well, the choices. If you can turn back the clock, if you can go back to a particular date, a particular time, when would it be and why?

SPROLLING: February 12th, 1997.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: That's a long time ago, Sprolling. Why is that?

SPROLLING: Because that's when I first started getting into all this trouble.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Shawn, what have you got? What was your day?

Mr. SHAWN JOHNSON (Inmate): If I go back right now, I'd go back to the past to a certain date like a year from now. I wouldn't do everything, like, exactly right if I had the same knowledge I would right now 'cause right now is the perfect moment, so I would just...

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: OK.

Mr. JOHNSON: At what point in time would you go back to?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: What point in time would I go back? August 3rd of '99. Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: And why?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: My father was killed. I miss my dad, yeah.

Unidentified Inmate: It's destiny, man.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah.

Unidentified Inmate: It didn't stop there. Everything happens for a reason.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I guess so. So it's made me stronger. It's made me a better dad, and, you know, I learned to put violence down after that, you know. I could have easily resorted to violence and got revenge, you know, on what had happened but I kind of laid it down and walked away from it, you know. But I live with my choices and you guys have got to live with your choices.

CHIDEYA: I asked Gus Rodriguez why he became a teacher.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I think we're all teachers in one form or another whether it's teaching someone to tie their shoes or help them ride a bike, but for me, personally, I came through the power ranks. In other words, the lowest echelon of teaching is you come in as a teacher's assistant and I came in as a teacher's assistant, and one day, the teacher was late and I was teaching the class when they walked in. And they kind of allowed me to do it and then encouraged me to say, `You know, you have a certain gift, a certain connection with the kids. Why don't you become a teacher?' And as far as teaching at Rikers High, I've always worked with children at risk. And one of the things that I felt that helped me--'cause I was 15, I was arrested, you know. I got my GED. I was able to turn my life around by the grace of God, but it took someone to say, `You can do it.' And I want to be that person. I want to step to the plate and take responsibility for someone else.

CHIDEYA: Johnson credits Rodriguez with getting him interested in reading and writing. He offers some advice to other youth in the system.

Mr. JOHNSON: If you're in there right now, the only thing I can say to them is to stay focused and then try to get out. Do the best that you can do.

CHIDEYA: Shawn Johnson is out now. At Rikers, he earned his high school equivalency degree.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Shawn Johnson, you want to come up.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: He's our valedictorian.

Mr. JOHNSON: Our time here on Rikers Island has not always been pleasant. However, we must understand that we are all in here for a reason. I believe that school's a place where great progress and advancement toward the future can happen if we put the violence and crimes behind us.

CHIDEYA: Not every student in the film did as well. One of them, a promising rapper, flunked a drug test soon after he found out that his girlfriend was pregnant.

Mr. BUHLER: Eight out of 10 teen-agers are re-arrested in a year they're released from jail. America incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, you know. Twenty-five percent of the world's prisoners are here in America. And I just think our philosophy has to change because really it just doesn't work.

CHIDEYA: Buhler continues to stay in contact with the students he profiled. The filmmaker hopes to be one of the people like Gus Rodriguez who can help turn around the lives of young men in need.

Farai Chideya, NPR News.

GORDON: "Rikers Island" premieres tonight on Showtime.

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