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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

"RIKERS: An American Jail"


On October 23 the Boisi Center held a screening and panel discussion of Bill Moyers’ documentary Rikers: An American Jail. The film featured accounts from several former Rikers inmates. They discussed the various forms of abuse and inhumane treatment they faced during their incarceration.

Following the screening, the panel, comprised of Boston College professors Marina McCoy and Stephen Pope as well as former inmates of the Massachusetts Correctional System, Joli Sparkman and Tom Lynes discussed mass incarceration and restorative justice. 

Lynes began the panel by discussing the abusive family history that led to his crime and the subsequent 25 years he spent in prison. Lynes grew up in an abusive household and describes developing a deep anger that he was never able to learn to control. It was only when he found his faith, thanks to the help of Dominican Sister Ruth Rachel, that he was able to learn to be more compassionate and loving. His time in prison was ridden with difficulties including long periods in solitary confinement, but his newly strengthened faith guided him to the realization that he was put on this earth to be something more than just a criminal and inmate.

Sparkman followed Lynes recounting the challenges she faced growing up in an abusive household and being forced into sex trafficking as a young adult. She eventually faced an 18 year prison sentence as she was involved in an exchange that lead to a murder. She recounted the ways in which her time in prison made her feel so hopeless that she contemplated, and eventually attempted, suicide. Sparkman shared a journal entry about one of her suicide attempts while in solitary confinement. She described the humiliating ways the correctional officers dealt with the event and the lack of concern that was shown for her mental health. Her saving grace, she claims, was her therapist Stew Jacoby who helped her find happiness for the first time.

Professors McCoy and Pope shared their insights on the corruptive nature of the system following these stories. McCoy described the ways in which mercy must take more of an active role in our society. Pope described the corrupt system as one that “systematically humiliates people then punishes them for being enraged about it.” The closing sentiment was that the current system is one that leaves many without hope or even desire for rehabilitation. It must be reformed so that it becomes one that heals.