Solitary at Rikers: 'People Go Crazy in There'

Most who survived solitary confinement at Rikers describe the horrific conditions, and mental anguish that extreme isolation can cause. Until recently, New York City, had nearly a thousand such "punitive segregation" cells.
By: The City NYC
Rikers Island Jail {CCA} Tim Rodenberg
Rikers Island Jail {CCA} Tim Rodenberg

The United Nations deems anything more than fifteen consecutive days of solitary confinement a form of torture. For years, the limits in the New York City jail system went far beyond that.

At its recent peak, there were nearly a thousand so-­called Punitive Segregation cells, with some specifically dedicated for teens and people with mental illness. Research shows that twenty-­three hours a day in a cell leads to serious psychological damage, especially for adolescents, whose brains are still developing. Studies also show that the punishment does little to decrease violence because those same people are later released right back into the general population.

Extreme isolation as a punishment dates at least as far back as 1831, when the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Jail officials had recently begun using that new method based on Quaker teachings.

In a missive to the French government, Tocqueville wrote, "Placed alone in view of his crime [he] learns to hate it, and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for anything better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him."

Over time, medical experts have determined the long-­term damages of solitary, especially for vulnerable populations, far outweigh any positive initial result. In New York City, there are now strict limits on how long people can be isolated, and some groups are totally exempt from solitary.

Jail officials and union leaders have strenuously fought each of the changes, saying the punishment is needed to keep people who follow the rules safe.

HECTOR "PASTOR BENNY" CUSTODIO, former Latin King leader, detained 1991 to 1994: I first went in 1992, in the Bing. You only bathed on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Sometimes they would spit in your food. They would put your food under your door. You had to look thoroughly through the food. They gave you a monkey suit; none of your own clothes. During the summer, you had blistering heat. Imagine spending almost four years in your bathroom, locked up, and not being able to go anywhere.

That's what it was like!

The City NYC
Reporting for New Yorkers
Source:The City NYC
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