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Questioning solitary confinement for adolescents at Rikers Island

February 21, 2014 at 6:24 PM EST
At Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, about a quarter of the underaged teenagers who are awaiting trial are in solitary confinement, spending 23 hours a day in a 6 by 8 ft cell. Daffodil Altan of the Center for Investigative Reporting takes a look at concern from city officials and others about the psychological effects of isolation on young inmates.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we turn to an issue many state and local penal systems are increasingly concerned about: the effect that solitary confinement has on teenage inmates. This week, New York State announced that it will ban the practice in its prison system.

A new report published by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found teenage inmates held in isolation at Rikers Island prison were more likely to harm themselves than other inmates. This week’s changes do not apply to Rikers Island, which is run by the city, not the state.

Special correspondent Daffodil Altan of the Center for Investigative Reporting filed this report on the situation there.

DAFFODIL ALTAN, The Center for Investigative Reporting: Every day, across the country, teenagers are held in jails built for adults.

In New York State, once you to turn 16, you’re prosecuted as an adult no matter what the charge. That means many teens arrested in New York City end up at Rikers Island. Separated from Manhattan by a long bridge over the East River, Rikers holds around 12,000 inmates, including hundreds of teens. Almost all of them are still awaiting trial. They have not been convicted.

Last year, officials at Rikers told the New York Board of Corrections that on a typical day, around a quarter of teens there were in solitary confinement.

DR. ROBERT COHEN, Former Medical Director, Rikers Island: It’s a remarkable fact that 27 percent of the adolescents on Rikers Island are in solitary confinement. It is more than 10 times the normal utilization in solitary confinement in the United States. It is off the curve.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: Dr. Robert Cohen is the former medical director at Rikers Island. He now sits on the New York City Board of Corrections.

DR. ROBERT COHEN: Teenagers need to exercise. They just need to run around. You can’t lock them up all day long and then expect them to behave like anything approaching a model citizen or to be repentant. It’s hard to imagine that response being facilitated and enhanced by being treated like a dog.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: Last year, the Board of Corrections issued two scathing reports critical of Rikers’ use of solitary confinement as punishment for teens and the mentally ill.

Inmates in solitary are locked in six-foot-by-eight-foot cells for 23 hours a day. If an inmate wakes up at 6:00 a.m., he can sign up to exercise for an hour alone in this chain-link cage. Nationwide, more than half of all suicides among detained juveniles happen while they’re in isolation.

Rikers runs educational programs which they have allowed the media to cover. But during the past year, the Center for Investigative Reporting made dozens of requests to see the adolescent solitary confinement units. Rikers officials wouldn’t let us see those units and declined to speak with us on camera.

DANIEL DROMM, New York Council: They’re hiding. They don’t want people to see what’s really going on in Rikers Island.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: New York Council Member Daniel Dromm is one of the few outsiders who has seen what conditions are like for teens in solitary.

DANIEL DROMM: And we went into the cell, we saw a rusted bed. We saw a mattress, a foam rubber mattress about this thick with mold on it. There was graffiti and writing all over the wall. It hadn’t been painted. There was dirt around the edges of the floor of the cell. There was a small window to the outside about this big.

And there was a small window on the door as well. And that is the conditions that people who are in solitary, young people, adolescents, have to live in 23 hours a day on Rikers Island. And that to me is torture.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: Ismael Nazario experienced that firsthand. Now 25 and a youth counselor in Brooklyn, Nazario was a teen when he was in and out of Rikers on assault and robbery charges. Without being convicted, he says he spent a total of 300 days in solitary. The longest stretch was four months.

ISMAEL NAZARIO: Like, your eyes will start to play tricks on you. Like, you start seeing black dots, and you focus on them. It’s kind of crazy. It looks crazy. I was to sit here and like demonstrate it, like how it used to look, it looks crazy. It’s like you see the black dots and you’re just focusing on the black dots and your eyes are just following them around in the cell all over. And you are just looking.

And, you know, you are trying to escape seeing the black dots, but you can’t. It’s like the black dots is it. There’s no black dots there. You know, it’s crazy.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: Isolated for months at a time, he was desperate to talk to someone, anyone.

ISMAEL NAZARIO: Start talking to yourself, speaking out loud, just start pacing back and forth. Like, oh, this is crazy. When I was in the studio, it was real. Look at me, I’m a box right now. This (EXPLETIVE DELETED) is crazy. Tomorrow, my visit, I can’t wait until tomorrow. That’s what I’m going to say, like, yes, what is going on. Like that. It’s crazy. You become loony.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: He also remembers how inmates yelled to each other.

ISMAEL NAZARIO: It’s a little crack in the side of the door. You get real close to it and just you scream, you know?  You scream, hey, yo, hey, yo, what’s popping?

There’s so many people that have been in that cell and have screamed on that same gate. It smells like a bunch of breath and drool. I cannot make this up.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: The United Nations considered solitary confinement to be cruel and inhumane. The U.N. special investigator on torture is Juan Mendez.

JUAN MENDEZ, UN Commission on Human Rights: Well, in legal terms, the Convention on the Rights of a Child specifically says that solitary confinement for young offenders is prohibited.

It’s prohibited as a matter of international law. And it’s not capricious. It’s because the medical and the psychiatric literature demonstrates that young offenders suffer isolation in very different and much worse forms than adults.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: The U.N. classifies solitary as a form of torture.

JUAN MENDEZ: For juveniles, it should never be used. For people with mental disabilities, for women who are pregnant or feeding children. And even for people who are completely healthy, it shouldn’t be either prolonged or indefinite.

DAFFODIL ALTAN:  But those who work in jail say solitary is a necessary tool for dealing with an aggressive adolescent population.

NORMAN SEABROOK, New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association: Until you have 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.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: Norman Seabrook, president of the union for New York City correction officers, was the closest we got to an official response from inside Rikers Island.

NORMAN SEABROOK: You go into the belly of the beast and you handle whatever comes your way, but you have been to be smart enough to articulate to those young men that are in there. And they have so much testosterone that they are just — it’s like flying off the walls.

And these guys are going at it. And they’re going and going and going and going like the Energizer Rabbit. They just don’t stop. And sometimes you have to use force. And when you use force, I instruct my officers, use whatever force is necessary to terminate that threat.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: For Seabrook, that means using solitary confinement for 16-year-olds when correction officers see fit.

NORMAN SEABROOK: We fought vigorously to ensure that those that committed infractions in the city’s jail system are sentenced to punitive segregation time.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: The jail’s own rules say that teens can get 90 days of what officials call punitive segregation for fighting and more than a week minor infractions like horseplay.

But little is known about what exactly goes on here, because the Department of Corrections is not required to publicly report much, beyond how many teens are in solitary at any given time.

DANIEL DROMM: We have had a difficult time trying to find out exactly what’s going on in Rikers Island in regard to punitive segregation.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: Next month, Dromm will introduce legislation calling for the department to be more transparent about its use of solitary.

DANIEL DROMM: What we’re looking for are numbers. How many people are they putting into the mental health units? How many adolescents are going into solitary confinement? Who are these people? What are the infractions? What are their ages?

We need to unveil the secrecy around solitary, so that we can understand what exactly is going on.

DAFFODIL ALTAN: The New York City Department of Corrections says it has already taken steps to minimize its use of solitary confinement, similar to those now proposed by the state. But so far, Rikers has not allowed cameras inside to show what it’s like for teens in solitary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can hear more on this story on “Reveal.”  It’s a new program from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, the Public Media Exchange. “Reveal” airs on public radio stations beginning March 1.