Dispatches: Mental Illness Runs Rife on Rikers Island

(This piece was originally completed as part of the ‘Journalism for Social Change’ course offered by UC Berkeley on the edX platform)

The box, as it is commonly referred to, is a tiny 6-by-8-foot cell consisting of a bed, sink, toilet and a small window. Hygiene is not a priority, with toilets often clogging and insects scampering about, and a slot in the metal door allows for food to be pushed in over the course of the day. During his time at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, Ismael Nazario recalls spending four months at a stretch in solitary confinement – or ‘punitive segregation’, as it is officially known at Rikers. Initially arrested at the age of 16 over an assault charge, he found himself back in Rikers Island a short while later for alleged robbery and was placed in solitary confinement for supposedly inciting a riot. Looking back at his time in the box, he recalls slowly losing his mind, experiencing hallucinations and struggling to deal with the incessant screaming of other confined inmates.

“You just get angry with hearing people constantly hollering all day,” Nazario 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.”

Now in his mid-twenties, Nazario uses his past experiences to guide his work with The Fortune Society, helping former inmates reintegrate into society after their release. He is particularly aware of the devastating mental impacts of spending 23 hours a day in isolation for extended periods of time.

Under state criminal law in New York, those who are 16 or older have historically been charged as adults. Only recently has legislation been approved in order to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. Meanwhile, Rikers Island has drawn strong condemnation over the years for its high rates of teenage solitary confinement. The correctional facility contains approximately 12,000 inmates, a number that includes hundreds of adolescents. An investigation carried out by The Center for Investigating Reporting found that around 85 percent of inmates at the facility are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. According to the report, on any given day, approximately a quarter of the adolescents at Rikers Island are held in solitary confinement. Three-quarters of this group suffer from diagnosed mental illnesses. The very nature of solitary confinement often causes or worsens mental illness, and has been strongly linked to risk of suicide.

Information regarding the use of solitary confinement is often hard to access as jails, prisons and juvenile halls are not required by the federal government to disclose the number of teenagers in isolation or the duration of the placement. However, a report conducted by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that such isolation tactics cause serious mental and physical health issues in teenagers and is counterproductive to their growth, development and rehabilitation.

Correction officers at Rikers Island, however, have a different story to tell. Some claim that punitive segregation is a necessary tool in order to deal with difficult teenagers, while also stating that they do not have the experience nor the resources to deal with inmates with psychological problems.

We cannot lock up teenagers in solitary confinement and expect them to be repentant or behave like model citizens, says Dr Robert Cohen, a member of the New York City Board of Correction and former director of medical services at Rikers Island. Retired Judge Bryanne Hamill, who also sits on the Board of Correction, emphasises the need to increase the number of correction officers in prisons. They need to build relationships with inmates, she says. Hamill also brings up the importance of alternative consequences for rule infractions, as opposed to solitary confinement.

(photo credit: New York Daily News)

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