I ran a cello program on Rikers Island, New York City’s largest jail, for four years. My days consisted of bringing my instrument to the housing units and performing for the young inmates. They would listen to me improvise and sometimes join in by banging rhythms on tabletops, singing, freestyling, dancing, and generally having a good time. I worked with thousands of inmates during my time at Rikers, and each one had a different story.
One of the kids whom I grew close to was named Prakash Churaman, a young man who was arrested at the age of 15 for a crime that he did not commit. Prakash was handcuffed at 6:00AM one morning by police without a search or arrest warrant, driven around Queens for three hours in the back of an unmarked squad car, and ultimately coerced into making a false confession by NYPD detectives without a lawyer present. He spent the next six years of his life behind bars, surrounded by grown men, many of them violent offenders, trying to prove his innocence.
Prakash and I formed a bond during our sessions at Rikers. So when he asked me to help get his story out to the public so that people would know what was happening to him, and possibly intervene on his behalf, I agreed. Advocating for Prakash cost me my job and I am currently banned for life from working at Rikers Island jail. Exile and incarceration didn’t break our bond; Prakash and I stayed in touch and I continue to advocate on his behalf.
The documentary film The Prakash Churaman Story is told in Prakash’s own words using phone calls that we recorded while he was in jail. His story has been illustrated with family photographs, drawings, and graphic animation. The audio recordings of our phone conversations are accompanied by a live soundtrack filmed on location in Queens, just across the water from the infamous Rikers jail complex. Though the film ends with some positive developments in Prakash’s case, his struggle for freedom and justice is far from over.
For updates on Prakash’s case, visit: www.instagram.com/freeprakashalliance/