Rikers Island is notorious for excessive violence, crumbling facilities, and neglect of inmates. In a special report two years in the making, ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer was granted unprecedented, exclusive access inside the largest jail complex in America. Her in-depth report describes what is really happening behind closed doors as a new commissioner tries to reform Rikers in the face of public pressure to shut it down and a federal order to end widespread abuse. ‘Hidden America: Inside Rikers Island,’ a Diane Sawyer special edition of ‘Nightline,’ airs Friday, May 20 [12:35 – 1:05 a.m. EST] on the ABC Television Network.
Sawyer interviews Joseph Ponte, Commissioner of the New York City Correction Department, about how he is reforming Rikers Island and working to reduce violence to make the jail safer for inmates and officers alike. She goes inside punitive segregation, otherwise known as solitary confinement, where inmates are held in a cell for up to 23 hours a day. With Commissioner Ponte planning to make Rikers Island the first jail in the country to end this form of incarceration for 18-21 year olds, Sawyer looks into how he will handle some of the most dangerous inmates.
Sawyer also speaks to correction officers about the challenges they face every day and why some believe the Commissioner Ponte’s reforms could put their lives at risk. In addition, she visits with some of the youngest inmates at Rikers Island who are at a crossroads of trying to turn their lives around.
Excerpts of the special will air on ‘Good Morning America’ and ‘World News Tonight with David Muir’ and across ABCNews.com, ABC News Radio and ABC NewsOne.
This is Sawyer's fourth special on prisons and jails across the country over the past two decades. In 2015, her primetime award-winning special ‘A Nation of Women Behind Bars’ covered women in four prisons for eight months to investigate life inside of prison, mental health and death row. In 2004, Sawyer spent two days and two nights at the Metro State Prison for Women in Atlanta dressed in a prison uniform to experience the underground culture of an inmate. In 1996, she reported from the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women about life inside a maximum-security prison and how inmates prepare for life on the outside.
‘Hidden America’ is a division-wide series committed to shining a light on the stories of those living in the shadows. The reports also spotlight the creative and innovative solutions by people who make a difference. Previous programs include award-winning documentaries on children in Camden, New Jersey, one of America’s poorest cities; families living in Appalachia; and a documentary on a remarkable principal trying to turn around one of America’s most dangerous schools in Philadelphia.
Roxanna Sherwood is the executive producer of ‘Nightline’ and Claire Weinraub is the senior producer of ‘Hidden America’ specials.