'Rikers High': School Behind Bars

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Day to Day television critic Andrew Wallenstein reviews Showtime's new documentary Rikers High, a film that chronicles the lives of three teenagers attending high school inside New York City's Rikers Prison.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Rikers Island is New York City's largest jail; it houses around 15,000 inmates at any one time. Some of them are teen-agers, and by law, they have to be educated. A new Showtime documentary examines Rikers' high school. Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein with a review of "Rikers High."

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

For many of us, attending high school felt like being in prison. Then just imagine what it's like to be in a high school that is actually in a prison. The new documentary "Rikers High" does just that, and the access it gets to the students is incredible. Filmmaker Victor Buhler achieves such an intimacy with his subjects behind bars you'd have thought he was one of the inmates.

"Rikers" trains its lens on Island Academy, which offer classes that teaches everything from the math or reading skills necessary to pass the GED to vocational specialities like cutting hair. As one officer notes, the academy is a last hope for teen-agers badly in need of guidance.

(Soundbite of "Rikers High")

Unidentified Man: The social skills for being successful in life, they were not prepared for. I also witness kids coming here that couldn't read, couldn't even tell time. But the school do attempt to help train them so they won't return back into a system that's so destructive.

WALLENSTEIN: Prison documentaries often glorify their subject, but Buhler doesn't fall victim to that. He doesn't sugarcoat the prospects of these student prisoners. He also has a way of insinuating his camera into scenes you'd think a prison wouldn't want viewers to glimpse. We witness a floor-to-ceiling prison search. The prisoners look on helplessly as their meager belongings are scattered by the guards, leaving the ward looking like a tornado hit.

"Rikers" really hits home when it offers character portraits of three students in particular. I was mesmerized by 18-year-old William Santiago. He is in Rikers for six months on a robbery conviction. He lacks any focus or perspective on his wayward life, but you could hear his charisma and potential in one of several impromptu raps he delivers throughout the film.

(Soundbite of "Rikers High")

Mr. WILLIAM SANTIAGO: (Rapping) Listen, yo, I said yo might not have expect the heat till it got fires that shorten up your life expectancy. See, I don't want to step to see, otherwise your brains be in your throat where you neck should be so I can spit like a vector beam. So invade my space, I'll push you hard where your rectum be. Lexus G, with the windows crazy tint. And the pockets stay fat like a baby's in it. Sizzlin' through lens, drizzlin' through the glands. Put holes in your palms, now you're whistling through the head.

WALLENSTEIN: But as we see when the documentary follows Santiago out of prison, his future looks bleak at best. "Rikers High" veers back and forth between hope and hopelessness. With subjects like Santiago so talented yet so troubled, the documentary shows the limits of prison rehabilitation in stark relief.

BRAND: "Rikers High" airs tonight on Showtime. Andrew Wallenstein is an editor at the Hollywood Reporter.

(Soundbite of "Lose Yourself")

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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