Former Rikers Island Youth Inmate Opens Up About Solitary Confinement

A new report on New York City's use of solitary confinement for youth comes as the state is rolling back the practice.

By Julianne Hing Mar 04, 2014

As a teen Ismael Nazario did time in New York City’s Rikers Island prison for assault and robbery charges. "Without being convicted he says he spent a total of 300 days in solitary. The longest stretch was four months," reports Daffodil Altan for NewsHour. It was excrutiating, Nazario says. "Like, my eyes would start playing tricks on me. I would start seeing black dots. And I’d focus on them. It’s crazy. It looks crazy when I demonstrate it, how it used to look. You see the black dots and you just focusing on the black dots and your eyes is just follwoign them around all over the cell. You’re trying to escape seeing the black dots. But you can’t, there’s no black dots there. It’s crazy."

Today he’s a youth counselor in Brooklyn. But back on Rikers, solitary confinement proved to be a profoundly destructive practice. After long stretches in solitary confinement, which requires 23 hours of total isolation in a small cell, Nazario started talking to himself, pacing back and forth, screaming through a small slit in the door at his cell, a not uncommon response to the solitary confinement. For years advocates have been highlighting the dangers of solitary confinement, which many prison reform advocates consider tantamount to torture. 

Folks are finally listening. In late February New York state announced that it’s rolling back its use of solitary confinement for the most vulnerable populations, including youth, pregnant inmates and those with mental disabilities. 

Watch the rest of the PBS NewsHour segment.