I was 17 years old when I first entered a Rikers Island cell. An icy wind blew through the crack in a window sealed behind a metal grate. The pistachio-green walls absorbed the cold.
I lay dressed in corduroys and a goose down jacket under a thin blanket, shivering in the C-74 building where they kept juveniles. I spent the weekend there in isolation.
On Monday, a grand jury freed me by not returning an indictment. I returned to the streets worse than I left – more hyper-vigilant, angrier and more likely to see violence as a solution to unfairness.
I share this story as I reflect on President Obama’s recent ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody. Many states followed suit recently, including New York, but recent reports reveal that changes have been largely in name only.
New York City has ended solitary confinement for juveniles, but has replaced it with Enhanced Supervision Housing Units (ESHU), a new form of restrictive housing.
People incarcerated in ESHU have complained that it is no different than being locked in administrative segregation (aka solitary confinement), according to Raven Rakia’s article in The Nation.
In the article, Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte argues that ESHU are necessary to control the “most dangerous and violent inmates.” Jail administrators place individuals in ESHU by predicting those most likely to commit violence. The determination process for ESHU result in more of the same—placement in solitary.
At root, the problem lies in the danger and violence of incarceration. People are labeled “dangerous” because they become dangerous when put into the violence and chaos of the dilapidated, environmentally unsafe jails of Rikers Island.
In 1995, I returned to Rikers for the third time, and they had just started what they called the “predicate cutter program.” This program sought to predict which individuals would literally “cut” other people. The administration thought labeling the violent inmates with ID cards laminated in red would stem the violent behavior. Today, such labels land incarcerated people in ESHU.
For example, I was housed in a building known as “HDM.” It’s an older jail with three-tiers of cells that have bars. Guards rarely walked the tiers, and their office was out of view, leaving us unsupervised.
There I once saw one man stabbing the three men who were stabbing him. On the way to court, I saw some Bloods cut a handcuffed, defenseless teenager. I feared being next in that world where guards allowed thugs to rule with violence. I armed myself with a single-edge razor blade and a warrior’s mentality.
Eventually, a guard found the razor inside my cell, and they placed me in solitary confinement for six months. Although I hadn’t cut anyone, correction officials labeled me a predicate cutter for having a weapon to protect myself from predicate cutters. They reissued me a red ID card, meaning I had to be handcuffed everywhere I went.
The guards placed me in North Facility, also know as the “bing.” The large single cell had a knee-high slab of concrete with a gray-vinyl mattress on top. Frigid air blew through a vent high on the wall above the sink. Those who protested or went stir-crazy said guards took them to places without cameras and beat them.
While in the “bing” I relied on the state to feed me every 12 hours because we weren’t allowed to purchase food from the canteen. I tried to sleep off the hunger, but the cold air kept waking me. Time outside the cell meant walking cuffed in kennel-sized cages on the yard.
By the fifth month, I was talking to myself and answering back.
No one should be put in an incubator that makes you worse. States should comply with federal guidelines to end solitary for juveniles. Ending solitary confinement should mean actually ending it, not just changing its form or name.
Instead of renaming the same broken tools, jails must change the physical environments, practices, and cultures that breed violence.
Visit www.stopsolitaryforkids.org or #stopsolitaryforkids for more information.