NEW YORK – There’s not much inside “the box.” Cinder block walls rise up and close in. There’s a bunk, a sink, a toilet and a metal door with a small mesh window. Food comes through a slot. Sometimes, mice and roaches scamper through.
Teenagers kept in the box sometimes hallucinate and throw fits. They splash urine around or smear their blood and shit on the walls. The concrete room gets so hot in the summertime that the floor and walls sweat.
Ismael Nazario’s longest stretch in the box lasted four months. He paced a lot, talking to himself and choking back tears and rage. He tried to block out the screaming of the teenage boys in other jail cells in his unit, but he couldn’t. Sometimes, he would stand at the door of his tiny cell and yell.
“You just get angry with hearing people constantly hollering all day,” he says. “There’s so many people that have been in that cell and screamed on that same gate, it smells like a bunch of breath and drool.”
Nazario is one of hundreds of teenagers sent in recent years to solitary confinement at Rikers Island, the massive jail complex in the middle of New York City’s East River. Teenagers at Rikers call solitary confinement the box: 23 hours a day in a 6-by-8-foot cell.
“There came a time when I cried when I was on Rikers Island, in the box, when I was there by myself,” Nazario says. “There’s times, you know, sometimes you need a good cry.”
Because of its imposing size and notoriety, many people think Rikers is a prison, but it’s not. It’s a city jail, where on any given day about 85 percent of inmates await the resolution of their cases, according to the New York City Board of Correction. Most of the teenagers there are locked up because they can’t afford bail.
In New York, anyone who is 16 or older is considered an adult under state criminal law. Rikers, one of the largest jails in the world, has an adolescent population that can rival the biggest adult jail systems in the country: between 400 and 800 a day.
Solitary confinement at Rikers is officially called punitive segregation. Officials say the practice is reserved for the most dangerous inmates. But Rikers’ rules say 16- and 17-year-olds can be sent to the box for horseplay and “noisy behavior” or if they “annoy” staff members. Teenagers with “unauthorized amounts” of clothing or art supplies can go to solitary, too.
At any given time, about 100 teenagers are housed in solitary confinement at Rikers Island – an abnormally high number compared with estimated rates of solitary confinement across the U.S.
Nazario first went to Rikers at 16, after an arrest on an assault charge. Before leaving at 19, he says, he had spent more than 300 days in solitary confinement – all before being convicted of a crime.
Every day, thousands of teenagers around the U.S. are held in solitary confinement, but no one knows for sure how many. That’s because the federal government does not require prisons, jails and juvenile halls to report the number of young people they put in isolation or how long they keep them there. After months of requests, officials at Rikers Island have yet to provide information on their facility. They declined to give interviews and denied requests for a tour of the solitary units. An October email to The Center for Investigative Reporting from spokesman Eldin Villafane reads: “I have to make clear to you at this point that the Dept of Correction will not be participating on your piece. Please discontinue your requests.”
Last month, New York state prison officials said they would ban the use of solitary confinement as punishment for minors. But that settlement, forged after a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union, does not apply to Rikers jail, which is run by the city of New York.
Despite the movement in New York, the U.S. has failed to significantly address the issue of holding minors in solitary confinement. Most state laws are vague or nonexistent. Prisons, jails and juvenile halls try to keep their records secret and refuse to open their doors to scrutiny, and the federal government allows states to operate with little oversight. Along the way, the stories of minors locked up alone for months persist, despite strong evidence that extended periods of solitary confinement can lead to mental illness and suicide.
In Polk County, Fla., where juveniles are held in adult jail, Sheriff Grady Judd is being sued for locking teenagers in isolation cells for months on end. Those at risk of committing suicide were dressed in smocks and held in cages, usually alone but in full view of other inmates, the suit says. In New Jersey, the state’s Juvenile Justice Commissionsettled a civil rights lawsuit in January for $400,000 after keeping a teenage boy in isolation for 178 out of 225 days, even though he was severely mentally ill. In Texas, state records show that in 2012, juvenile facilities locked minors in solitary confinement more than 36,000 times.
Every state has its own system for collecting data, if it collects any at all, and each defines solitary confinement in its own way. Obscuring the picture further, states including Texas and California allow juvenile facilities to create their own isolation policies, and their numbers can go unreported.
For example: In 2011, an audit of California’s Division of Juvenile Justice found 249 instances of inmates being locked in their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, a violation of the agency’s own policy. The auditors found that those numbers – from four youth prisons over four months – had not been reported to state headquarters and that agency officials had failed to monitor conditions inside the facilities.
If tracking juvenile isolation is tough, regulating it is tougher.
The U.S. Department of Justice has called prolonged juvenile isolation cruel and unusual punishment. Attorney General Eric Holder has condemned the practice, and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has convened congressional hearings on solitary confinement. Despite increasing rhetoric in Washington, no federal laws prohibit solitary confinement for youth or limit the number of weeks or months they can be locked in their cells for 23 hours a day.
Few U.S. systems ban juvenile solitary
Only the U.S., Somalia and South Sudan have declined to ratify the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits juvenile solitary confinement as a matter of international law.
Although federal regulations require that minors in juvenile facilities go outside to exercise for an hour each day, most states allow 23-hour lockdowns that can go on indefinitely. Seven states – Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and West Virginia – have placed some prohibition on juvenile solitary confinement. In Maine, however, the ban is not explicit, and a loophole in Nevada allows isolation if “less-restrictive options have been exhausted.”
Even experts admit they don’t know exactly what’s going on.
“There is a certain chaos of information,” says Juan Méndez, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture. “We are all speculating and don’t know exactly the size of this problem.”
Robert Listenbee, head of the juvenile justice division of the U.S. Department of Justice, has told youth advocates that he takes the issue seriously and that preliminary discussions on isolation have taken place. Still, his office has not implemented any new regulations prohibiting solitary confinement. He declined to comment.
Few in the corrections business admit that they use solitary confinement. Instead, they call it punitive segregation, disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, protective segregation, room time, room restriction, room confinement, disciplinary confinement, secure housing, behavioral treatment housing, restricted housing, restricted engagement, reflection time, suicide watch or isolated confinement for monitoring risk of suicide or self-harm.
Méndez says the litany of euphemisms highlights how some corrections officials mask what’s really going on inside their facilities. He says there was a parallel debate over the word “torture.”
“I don't know a single country that tortures,” he says, “that calls what it does torture.”
When Nazario was at Rikers, he says, some minors were so desperate to avoid solitary that they would stick AA batteries in their rectums to set off the metal detector on the way to the box.
“When they take you to the infirmary and they see that you have a battery there, they say that that's kind of a suicide attempt because your body temperature heats up the battery; the battery can explode in you, you could die,” he says. “But if you try to commit suicide, you can't be in the box because you can't be in the cell by yourself, so they take you out the box.”
A correction officer’s perspective
In New York, not everyone opposes putting teenagers in the box, starting with the president of the city correction officers union, Norman Seabrook.
“Hell no,” he says. “We don’t use punitive segregation enough.”
Raised in the South Bronx, Seabrook says that he was kicked out of five high schools and that it must have been a guardian angel that kept him from winding up dead or in jail. But he doesn’t think adolescents at Rikers deserve special considerations.
“Giving these young people a pass because they're 17 years old, I'm not impressed with that,” he says. “I have a brother doing 25 years to life. We had the same mom. He chose one way of life, I chose another, but he doesn't get a pass from me, either.”
Seabrook represents almost 10,000 active correction officers who patrol the city’s jails, including Rikers Island, and he’s fierce about defending them.
“We have had inmates bite off the fingers of correction officers so that they now have eight-and-a-half and nine fingers as opposed to 10,” he says. “Until you've walked in the shoes of a correction officer inside the city's jail system, please don't pass judgment on us, because you know what? It's a tough job.”
At Rikers, Seabrook says, solitary confinement is the tool that allows correction officers to make it through the day.
“You're giving all of these young people to us, and we have to determine what's wrong with them,” he says. “You can't do it. It's impossible.”
Last year, reports by the New York City Board of Correction, an independent panel that monitors and regulates city jails, showed that about a quarter of adolescents at Rikers were in solitary confinement on any given day. Of the teenagers in solitary, almost three-quarters had diagnosed mental health problems.
“We don't have the experience to deal with a person with psychological problems,” Seabrook says. “We're not doing enough because they shouldn't be brought to us.”
But because the teens are brought to the jail, the union has fought hard to make sure solitary confinement reform does not take hold.
For instance, consider the New York City Department of Correction’s policy of “time owed.” If while awaiting trial at Rikers Island you’re sentenced to time in punitive segregation – say, 90 days – and your case is dismissed on day 10, the Department of Correction releases you back into the world. But if you’re arrested again and sent to Rikers, you can be put back in the box immediately to finish the 80 days that remained on the books when you left.
That rule helped cause a massive backlog at Rikers that resulted in a waiting list to get into solitary confinement. That meant correction officers were stuck dealing with scores of young inmates they didn’t know how to control. When Dora Schriro, then the city’s correction commissioner, and the Board of Correction began considering reforms, Seabrook says, the union “forced the city to create more bed space” for solitary confinement. That effort contributed to a more than 60 percent increase in Rikers’ solitary capacity from 2007 through 2013.
Since then, the debate over Rikers’ reliance on isolation has mushroomed into one of the testiest political debates in the city. Local advocacy groups formed the Jails Action Coalition and called for an outright ban on solitary confinement for juveniles and mentally ill inmates. New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm drafted bills to end the owed-time policy and require the Department of Correction to publish monthly reports detailing solitary practices on its website. He’s introducing them this month.
After months of bickering, the Board of Correction voted in September to begin creating new rules that would reduce solitary at Rikers. That process is expected to take at least another year.
When New York state initially made headlines with its proposed ban on punitive solitary for juveniles, Rikers officials declared themselves ahead of the curve. In a statement last month, they said: “The New York City Department of Correction has already taken many steps to minimize the use of punitive segregation which are similar to those now proposed by the state.”
Recent reports indicate that adolescent inmates are serving shorter stretches in the box, and a one-day snapshot from January showed an 18.6 percent rate of youth in solitary versus about a quarter for most of last year. Still, no new regulations are in place, and no media have been allowed to see how teenagers live in the box.
Meanwhile, the union knows what it wants – and that’s for everyone to quit meddling.
“The Board of Correction needs to just stay out of the correction business,” Seabrook says. “I'm sick and tired of people sitting down – not knowing what we do, not having urine and feces doused in their face, not being slashed, being bitten, being beat, being abused, being subjected to everything that correction officers are subjected to – to have somebody sit back and say they're going to change policy and procedure.”
Seeking action by City Council
Dromm’s interest in solitary confinement started with two of his friends. One is a longtime drug addict who has been in and out of Rikers and state prison for more than a decade and did long stretches in the box. The other runs The Fortune Society, which aims to help people stay free once they leave jail. One night at a play, the latter threw Dromm a challenge: “If you really want to do something to help offenders, do something about solitary.”
Dromm toured Rikers in fall 2012. Since then, he’s been pushing the Department of Correction to release more information about who is going to the box, why and for how long. Last month, he told CIR that he’s still waiting.
“They're hiding,” he says. “They don't want people to see what's really going on in Rikers Island, especially in the solitary confinement units. They don’t want the public to see what I saw with my own eyes.”
Dromm is a former public school teacher with a thick Queens accent. Although his grandfather and uncle were both longtime New York City police officers, he maintains a distrust of the potential for abuse in law enforcement.
“I was arrested on a false prostitution charge when I was 16 years old, and I do think that has a lot to do with my anger,” Dromm says. “That's what they used to do to gay people in those days. I think once you've gone through that experience where you've had police officers lie or abuse you, there always remains that seed of anger and that seed of suspicion against what they're doing.”
Dromm says he was shocked to hear Seabrook say that solitary isn’t so bad because inmates get one hour a day out of their cells and can yell through their doors to communicate. “To me, it's almost barbaric that somebody would say something like that,” he says.
Dromm is one of the few outsiders to witness firsthand how teenagers live in the box. On his tour of Rikers, he stopped short when he got to adolescent solitary.
“The one thing that really struck me, especially walking through the adolescent unit, was the fear on the faces of the inmates,” he says. “Most people would think that they're tough and they're angry and, from the way that some people describe them, violent and stuff, but I just saw lines and lines of very young men with their faces full of fear.”
Seabrook, for all of his bravado, says the same thing.
“These young men look at you with their eyes, and you can tell that they need help,” he says. “They're crying out like, ‘Come save me, come help me.’ The Department of Correction, we're the dumping ground to keep the city clean and keep the city safe. They don't give a shit where these kids end up.”
A cop and a social worker
Lorenzo Steele Jr. limps through his garage looking for a box of photographs. He limps from an Achilles tendon injury he got playing softball with a group of city correction officers. He used to be one of them. During his 12-year tenure guarding adolescents at Rikers Island, Steele became the de facto jail photographer, capturing birthday and retirement parties for his union brothers and sisters. He also captured life in the box.
“Looking at this picture, you have an inmate that’s asleep under the covers with his clothes on,” he says. “You could see his pants. You could see his socks. You could actually see the dirt inside the cell. It’s a very filthy place.”
Steele says the adolescent units were savage. He used to watch boys getting their faces stitched in the infirmary after being slashed by rival inmates. “I saw so many cuttings and inmates getting stitched up,” he says, “I probably could stitch you up myself.”
Steele lives in a Long Island neighborhood that would be quiet if jetliners didn’t buzz by his house every three minutes on their way to John F. Kennedy International Airport. On a table in his living room sits a display case made of wood and Plexiglas, 3 feet square, full of medieval-looking homemade weapons confiscated at Rikers Island. He says it was a retirement gift from the warden.
Steele is tall and friendly, with a deep, raspy voice. Close your eyes and you’ll swear you’re listening to Tone-Loc recount the depravity and chaotic din of the box.
“Sixty-six kids banging on their cells at the same time,” he says. “Imagine that for eight hours. Imagine them throwing feces at you. I didn’t see too many mental health people coming through to talk to the individual inmates, or even a chaplain.”
After leaving Rikers, Steele began to study criminal justice. Then he started Future Leaders, an antiviolence program for youth. Now he travels around New York with his gruesome Rikers Island photo album, showing kids what could happen if they wind up in jail.
Today, Steele is caught between worlds. On the job, he worked alongside Seabrook and didn’t give much thought to the impact solitary could have on young minds. Rules were rules, and if you broke them, you faced the consequences. Before he sits down to be interviewed, he leaves the room to change out of his green correction officer sweatshirt and into a long-sleeve button-down. When he comes back, he toggles between talking like a cop and talking like a social worker.
The cop wants to control the inmate: “You have murderers, you have rapists, you have people throwing people in front of the trains, you have the city's worst right there on Rikers Island.”
The social worker sees the inmate as a victim: “I never really thought about it from an adolescent point of view. Adults may know how to handle certain situations mentally, but imagine a young child that is locked in the area sometimes the size of a bathroom. How does he mentally cope with that, being in that cell sometimes for two months, three months, four months?”
That question hit Steele hardest six years ago when his then-17-year-old son was arrested for a probation violation, sent to Rikers and put in the box for two months.
“As a father, of course you’re going to worry,” Steele says. “That’s my firstborn. A lot of sleepless nights.”
He says his son – who declined to be interviewed for this story – left Rikers as an adolescent and hasn’t returned to jail. Steele wonders if the box might have helped his son realize that he needed to straighten up. But thinking back on the solitary unit where he used to work, where his son spent 60 days in isolation, Steele remembers something else.
“They painted it gray and black,” he says. “Low light. You could feel the darkness.”
A toll on mental health
Jails have become America’s de facto mental health institutions. Over the past 60 years, the population of public psychiatric facilities has dropped about 90 percent, while the percentage of mentally ill inmates in juvenile halls, jails and prisons has skyrocketed.
At Rikers, almost half of all teens have diagnosed mental illnesses. For the youth population in solitary, that number jumps to nearly three-quarters, according to the Board of Correction.
Rikers inmates in solitary confinement are seven times more likely to hurt or mutilate themselves than those in the general population, according to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The U.S. Department of Justice found in 2009 that half of juvenile suicides behind bars happened while young inmates were in solitary confinement.
“The use of solitary confinement can only be seen by both staff and inmates as one of the most severe forms of punishment that can be inflicted on human beings short of killing them,” Dr. James Gilligan and Dr. Bandy Lee wrote in a scathing report about Rikers Island prepared for the Board of Correction and released in September. “The use of punitive segregation even among those not diagnosed as mentally ill is likely to increase the frequency of mental illness in the jail population, together with associated symptoms such as suicidal and assaultive behavior.”
Gilligan and Lee described a self-defeating system of punishment at Rikers that was ramping up institutional violence and creating mental health problems in inmates who had not experienced them before. The waiting list to get into the overstuffed solitary units, they wrote, was particularly problematic.
“We have seen examples at Rikers Island where inmates have waited a month or two before they are placed in punitive segregation – even if during that intervening time they had obeyed every rule in the book,” they wrote. “By that point, the only lesson they will learn, at an emotional level, from being locked up is that they are being punished for having behaved themselves in the meantime.”
In January, Rikers closed a punitive segregation unit for mentally ill inmates that was widely considered dysfunctional. Officials say they have replaced that unit with so-called Restricted Housing Units, which allow inmates to earn additional hours out of their cells over a period of weeks or months. Gilligan and Lee say the new units amount to solitary confinement and are likely to cause psychotic symptoms among inmates.
Sometimes, Dr. Robert Cohen peers through windows at 16- and 17-year-old boys lying motionless in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. Whether in winter or summer, they lie covered by thick wool blankets. Even spastic teenage biology doesn’t trump the deadening force of the box.
Cohen worked on Rikers Island as the director of medical services from 1982 to 1986, and he now sits on the Board of Correction. He spent much of last year pushing the board to speed up efforts to create new regulations for solitary confinement. Although the Department of Correction argues that punitive segregation is not really solitary confinement, Cohen has visited maximum-security prisons around the country and says there’s not much difference from what’s happening at Rikers.
Teenagers, by law, get an opportunity to go outside for an hour each day, but Cohen says most of them never make it out of their cells. In order to sign up for outside recreation, inmates have to be standing at their cell door each day around dawn. Most don’t bother, Cohen says, because they’re depressed or don’t want to go through the search-and-shackle process, or because recreation at Rikers means an hour alone in a chain-link cage.
“There’s nothing in them, there’s no exercise equipment, there’s no chair,” Cohen says. “There’s the sun or there’s the rain or there’s the cold air, and there’s nothing to do and you’re by yourself in a cage for an hour. And then when you return, you have to go through the same process – being scanned, being searched, having your clothes taken off and, of course, you’re shackled.”
Cohen says a fear of the youth population, which can be volatile and aggressive, has caused the staff at Rikers to rely too heavily on punitive segregation. He calls it the “criminalization of adolescence.” On his first day as a board member five years ago, he met with correction officials to discuss ways to improve the safety and culture of the adolescent units.
“I said, ‘What are you doing? How can this be improved?’ They said, ‘More solitary confinement,’ ” he says. “I think that’s a cultural issue, which has to be addressed in every level of the department. Everyone has to feel safe, everyone has to be safe, but solitary confinement does not increase safety. It doesn’t decrease the number of violent actions among the adolescents or the adults.”
Assault charge leads to time in Rikers
Kids in New York grow up scared of Rikers Island. Some watch friends and family disappear into the back seats of police cars and return days or months later talking about who got beaten or stabbed at Rikers. Some come home with their faces cut, and word gets around.
When Ismael Nazario first was sent to the box at 16, he says, it was for possessing enough tobacco to roll a pack of cigarettes. His stretch was supposed to be 15 days, but he got out after nine to make room for another inmate. He would make up that time, and then some, soon enough.
Nazario grew up in Brooklyn, first in Bedford-Stuyvesant, then East New York. His mother raised him alone. She was loving and strict.
“When I say strict, I mean strict,” Nazario says. “She made sure she was on top of me when it came to certain things, especially school, so all the way up to junior high school, I was honor roll.”
Then his mother got breast cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation made her hair fall out. Nazario was 13.
“Pretty much all I really had is my mother,” Nazario says. “So if I lose my mother, what will happen to me? That’s where the shift began, you know; it reflected on my grades in school.”
By the time Nazario was in 10th grade, he had begun to regard classes as unnecessary interruptions to smoking weed and talking to girls, both of which seemed more effective than academics at keeping his mind off of his problems. At 15, he was arrested after a fight with other students, placed in handcuffs and hauled off to the precinct.
In 2005, he was arrested on an assault charge. He was 16. Had the charge come a year earlier, he would have been sent to a juvenile facility. But 16 meant adult jail. A white-and-blue Correction Department bus took him to Rikers.
“So I’m looking at the places I used to hang out, and I’m just like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” he says. “But it ain’t hit me yet until we started going across that bridge to Rikers Island. As soon as we started going across that bridge, I was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ”
He wasn’t inside long, he says, before four inmates jumped him. They wanted his phone call privileges and commissary snacks. They demanded that he ask their permission to sit in chairs or use the bathroom. At that point, he says, he knew he would have to fight in jail.
After more than two months, Nazario’s assault charge was dismissed, but he was back at Rikers the next year for two alleged robberies. This time, he was sent to the box for assault and brawling with other inmates – the group, the guards said, had incited a riot. Before he left Rikers at 19, Nazario says, he had counted up more than 300 days in the box.
He remembers losing his mind, starting with hallucinations.
“It's like you see the black dots and you focus on the black dots and your eyes just follow them around in the cell all over,” he says. “You’re just looking and you know you try to escape seeing the black dots, but you can't.”
He remembers other teenage boys trying to get out of the box, kicking their doors and running their faucets until the sinks overflowed. Sometimes, he says, guards would leave inmates in their flooded cells.
“Even if the toilet got backed up,” he says, “because when you used the bathroom, the toilet got clogged, you know? So now it smells like feces in your cell. And you’re going to have to sleep. It's a small cell, so the toilet is right here and your bed is right here and you have to sleep in that.”
Nazario sighs and shakes his head a lot when he talks about Rikers – a madhouse, he says, where teenagers are treated like animals. One day while he was locked up, he saw another young inmate being escorted by guards with his legs and arms shackled, large, thick mittens on his hands with handcuffs over them.
“He’s, like, a kid,” he remembers. “And I’m looking at him like, ‘Is he eating people? Hannibal Lecter or something?’ It was crazy to me.”
Nazario eventually pleaded guilty to his first robbery charge as part of a settlement that kept the felony off his record. He was convicted of the second robbery but fought that decision, and the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor last year.
Today, Nazario is 25. His mother survived her bout with cancer and the two remain close. He says growing into adulthood at Rikers should have left him in ruins. But he watched what happened to other boys, the ones whom Rikers had broken.
“I used to see a lot of adolescents go home, and they would be back on Rikers Island in two or three weeks’ time,” he says. “I came to the realization that Rikers is their real home, and that’s real sad. I saw grown men in their 30s, same thing.”
A father now, Nazario spent the last three years working as a case manager with at-risk youth in Brooklyn. This month, he took a new job with The Fortune Society, working with adults and teens coming out of Rikers Island. But he doesn’t talk to them about his time in the box. He says he’ll share his experience with his daughter one day – but only when she’s old enough.
This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.