In New York City jails today, there are more than seven hundred people in solitary confinement, including 16- and 17-year olds and people diagnosed with mental illness. Contained in these pages are seven direct accounts of suffering that we have collected from men and women sentenced to solitary confinement at Rikers Island, the city’s largest jail situated a couple hundred feet from LaGuardia Airport. For each account, consider that it represents at least a hundred more.
Solitary confinement is the practice of placing a person in a cell, roughly the size of a parking spot, for 23-24 hours per day, depriving him or her of social interaction and environmental stimulation. It is used by the NYC Department of Correction (DOC) to punish individuals who violate jail rules, some as trivial as possessing too many postage stamps. Because the majority of people at Rikers are pre-trial detainees who cannot afford bail, most people in solitary confinement have not been convicted of any crime. Yet sentences to solitary confinement at Rikers are routinely greater than 15 days, the period beyond which the United Nations considers to be “torture.” NYC’s own Board of Correction recently commissioned a report that asserts that this prolonged confinement is “one of the most severe forms of punishment that can be inflicted on human beings short of killing them.”
“Voices from the Box” is a rare opportunity for the public to hear the facts about solitary confinement directly from the people experiencing the torment themselves. You will read of filthy vermin-infested cells that are never cleaned; the denial of food, water, showers, court appearances,
recreation, visitation, phone calls, medication and medical attention; arbitrary sentencing, brutality at the hands of correction officers (and the covering up of brutality); racism, Islamophobia. All describe the destruction of their mental state. Even sleep brings no escape because existence itself becomes a kind of nightmare. Theirs are lives suspended in time, in total obscurity, yet under constant and oppressive surveillance.
The DOC continues its practices despite frequent tragic outcomes, including suicide and self-harm, brought on by the psychological torture of isolation. NYC Jails Action Coalition (JAC) would like to thank the courageous men and women who contributed their voices to this collection. All human beings have a basic need to connect with another. Solitary confinement inherently denies that need. We hope “Voices from the Box” connects you to these individuals, to the magnitude of their exploitation, and to JAC, where you can join us in speaking up.
NYC Jails Action Coalition
I am 21 years old, and I am currently incarcerated at the Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC) on Rikers Island. I’m a college student, studying business at Borough of Manhattan Community College. This is my first time in jail. When I first got locked up, I couldn’t believe it. I just kept thinking about how precious freedom is. I couldn’t sleep. I’d wake up thinking I was home, but I was incarcerated. As a result, I got depressed and started taking anti-depression medication for it.
I was placed in solitary confinement from September 7 through December 11, 2012, after two people jumped a friend of mine and I tried to help him out. I was immediately put in the box and held for pre-hearing detention. The infraction was fighting and refusing a direct order. I attended my hearing but didn’t appeal.
Once in solitary, I was so bored in the cell. You were pretty much in your cell all day, every day, isolated. It messes with your mind, and you start looking at police differently. It made me want to hurt them. I started talking to myself. I tried reading a lot. I would ask myself questions like, “Why do they have places like this?” It’s just not right.
The recreation situation was terrible. At 5 a.m., you got breakfast. After that, you’d have to stay up until they came to your cell to get you for recreation. Oftentimes, I’d fall back asleep. If that happened, the guards wouldn’t knock on my door or yell. They’d just walk by. This meant I ended up going to recreation maybe once a week. Additionally, recreation itself just meant standing outside in a cell by yourself, just so you could feel the outside air.
You were supposed to have access to the showers every day, but sometimes the officers would walk by your cell and see you sleeping and they’d just walk past instead of waking you up. The food was horrible. If you disrespected anyone, you got the least amount of food. They would put stuff in the food; one time, my food smelled like soap. The cells were filthy, with dust everywhere and writing and stains on the walls. They never cleaned the cells; they only cleaned it if you flooded it out. The guards changed the linens when they felt like it (rarely) and wouldn’t give you the phone if they didn’t feel like it. You would go two weeks without getting your jumper cleaned, so I started washing my jumper and hanging it up myself.
I experienced mistreatment from the guards. They would put the handcuffs on my wrists too tight, and then they’d pull us down the stairs using the cuffs. Our housing had two tiers, and I was on the upper tier. They’d tighten the cuffs so your wrists hurt more and then pull you using the cuffs. I had bruises on my wrists for a while. The guards would also curse you out. Once I saw the extraction team beat up a guy.
I saw a guy (Jason Echevarria) die in his cell. The guards would go in there and beat him up all the time. He’d spray them with stuff and then they’d retaliate by going in and beating him. The week he died, he said he had chest pains on Monday and Tuesday. Toward the end of the week, they found him on the floor, purple. They brought him out in a body bag. That messed me up. They made it sound like he ate a soap ball, but I know they’re lying. They beat him up that whole week.
I was lucky in that every week I had visitors. My mom, aunts, cousins and girlfriend made the trip on a regular basis. On one of those visits, my 17-year-old cousin was strip-searched for no reason. The guard said he smelled pot on her, but she doesn’t even smoke. I told her she didn’t need to come back after that, but she continued visiting me anyway.
I think people need to focus on Rikers specifically and how corrections officers aren’t giving us our rights, and how they’re treating us like animals. We need to get people like lawyers from the UJC in here so they can observe how the guards treat us. Then you’d see why we act toward them and treat them the way we do. We just need to get someone in here to watch what they’re doing to us. This is not a place for humans.
M. L., 21 years old
I was in the bing for 20 days because I had a fight with another inmate after he stole my property. That was my second time in the bing. It made me feel depressed because I was in the box all day and I never came out of the room. Once a week I was allowed to make a phone call to my parents. They try to feed you dinner as early as they can, around 4:30 PM, and I was hungry because I can’t access my commissary account when I’m in the bing. The rec time we had – one hour – was at 2 or 3 in the morning. I had to choose whether I wanted to sleep or take rec. The COs searched my cell once a week to look for tobacco or a knife. I hope that nobody goes to the box.
R. M., 16 years old
July, 6, 2012
I am an inmate that has been placed in the MHAUII box or better known as the Bing since March 5, 2012. Since I have been here I have gone through a lot. I was wrongly placed here for assault on staff, I did not do. I was just beat down, had to go to the hospital then I got [placed in] the box, and was given a red ID. But I hear voices and can’t be in small places for too long. But I’m still here. They did not care about my problems. So much things go on that is not right. CO’s [correction officers] beat on us, don’t feed us good and are very racist and hateful towards your problems. They don’t understand us. But everything about being in the box has made my problems worse. The gates on the shower, the time we get to wash up, 23 hour lock in except when you go to rec. Even rec is bad and is not run right. They come too early to make AM list. And when you up early they come late so you can miss it. Plus CO’s assault us in the yard. It’s happened to me and many others so I’m scared to go outside. So that’s 24 hours in my cell. You see mental health once a week and when you tell them, they don’t care. Mental health is bad. They took me off my meds I have been taking for years so the voices eat me alive. I can’t sleep. It’s not right. The Deps. walk in your cell and take stuff you could have for no reason, just for the fun of it. SPA’s [suicide prevention aids] play with people’s food along with CO’s. I am scared to eat. I be starving myself. They barely pass the phone, I don’t speak to my family all the time. I hate the box. We all do. Please help us.
A. B., 21 years old
I am currently in the bing [MHAUII]. I got put here for fighting. I got 115 days. I kept fighting and caught more days. This time is from my previous incarceration at Rikers. However, I already served this time and don’t owe it anymore. I have a total of 477 days left.
The mental health treatment sucks. There is no respecting the HIPAA laws. The therapists talk to us through the cell door and they tell the officers private things. Doctors also talk to us through the cell door. I have filed many grievances but nothing has happened. There are people here who don’t eat or shower and hurt themselves—bad. I tried to hang myself in the bing. I woke up at Elmhurst Hospital and was sent back to the bing in a day. When you need sick call, they talk to you through the cell door. You’re supposed to go to medical to meet in private.
We also can’t have our ACS visits in the bing. I have 1 living child who is 2-years-old. I haven’t seen since her since the day before I got locked up in February. The people in Social Services don’t help. I asked them to call my ACS worker to try to get other types of visits because the computer says that my ACS case is dismissed. I don’t know if I can get my daughter back when I leave. The person in Social Services also talks to the COs about my private business.
My cell is very hot. Some cells have A/C but mine doesn’t. Rec time is supposed to be an hour but we only get 30 minutes. Rec is supposed to start when the cage is full and everyone is outside, but it doesn’t. They only keep us outside for a full hour if it’s raining.
We did a crime and some of us are sorry and some of us are not. But everyone deserves respect, and people should follow the HIPAA law that Congress made. HIPAA should be enforced in jails. Therapists, doctors, and nurses are supposed to go by the law. There are no exemptions. I broke the law and I’m in jail, but I should still get HIPAA rights. I hope that y’all will just listen and understand. Don’t listen to the messenger, listen to the message. Good day and thank you.
July 6, 2012
I’m 20 years old. This is my first time locked up.
I’ve been in the box for about 300 days, since May 2012. My wife says I’m not that funny no more, that I’m always pissed off and that I fight for no reason. Before, I wasn’t like this; I’d let things slide. Now, anything small gets me mad. Once a corrections officer opened the door and I almost hit him. Because I’ve been in the box so long, I can’t handle COs talking to me; I spaz out for nothing. I’m also depressed. I get a six-minute call every day, and if I don’t get ahold of someone, I start to cry. If I lose a call, I start crying like crazy.
Four or five months ago, I started seeing things when I sleep – like devils trying to scare me or hurt me. This never happened when I was outside or in general population – only in the box. I like to pray, so I pray a lot. I feel like someone is trying to fight me or hurt me. Maybe it’s because the box is so noisy; there’s always yelling, and it’s so crazy. Sometimes the COs go into my neighbor’s cell at 3 AM and beat him up. I would wake up to hear that guy getting beaten up.
There are no regular showers in here. On the days we don’t get showers, everyone floods their cells. We get recreation, but you’ve got to be at the door and flicking the light when they walk by or they’ll just leave you in there. I don’t go to the yard; we only get like 45 minutes, and I feel like an animal. It’s like a dog cage. The conditions in the cells are terrible. Sometimes you go a whole week without water. Once I couldn’t flush my toilet, and I had to do all sorts of stuff to get their attention so they would fix it.
I’ve suffered brutality and mistreatment by the COs. Once, they put me in the wrong shower stall; the shower glass was broken, so cold air was coming in the shower. I told the guard I needed to change my shower. He took me to a part of the showers where there are no cameras and beat me up. He told a rookie to shackle my legs. He banged my head on the floor, chipped my tooth, blackened my eye and hurt my back. They sort of fixed my tooth, but it still hurts. I filed a grievance, and an IG investigator came and took pictures of my injuries, but I never heard back about what happened. An officer also stole my property, including a picture of my mother I’ve had my whole life and my Koran, which contains all my legal and personal documents.
I’ve also been harassed because I’m Muslim. They don’t like Muslims. An officer said to me “I don’t negotiate with terrorists.” They make fun of me and make jokes about me because I had a beard. They won’t let me have my Muslim rosaries because they’re different. My wife sent me some and brought me some, and they won’t let me keep them.
Being in the box makes it harder for you to see visitors and to attend group therapy sessions. I try to attend group therapy once a week, but sometimes they don’t take me to therapy because they don’t have an escort. They tell the therapist that I’ve refused to come, but that’s not true. I’ve been lucky to have visitors a couple times a week. But my visitors sometimes have to wait six or seven hours to visit me. They wait forever because there aren’t enough escorts. When I’m in regular population, they would only have to wait one hour.
They need to put more cameras at Rikers, in the right spots. If cameras were in all the areas where they were supposed to be, there would be more eyes to watch what goes on.
I ended up in solitary because I got in a couple fights. A guy who was bigger than me came at me the wrong way, and I felt I had to defend myself. With this being my first time locked up, I didn’t know how to get around in jail. And when my space was violated, I spazzed out. I could’ve handled it another way, but I just flipped. If someone fights you, you still get box days, even if you’re just defending yourself.
To make the jails a safer place for everyone, they need to put more cameras at Rikers, in the right spots. If cameras were in all the areas where they were supposed to be, there would be more eyes to watch what goes on.
February 28, 2013
N. C. is a 54-year-old man housed in the Rikers Island North Infirmary Command. Mr. C has a heart condition that requires constant close medical monitoring. He has had three prior heart attacks and had a pacemaker installed. His message to you today is “shut it down.”
Mr. C was sentenced to 121 days in the NIC Bing and classified after he was charged with assault on staff. The NIC only has seven punitive segregation cells that are in horrible condition. The ceilings in there are so water damaged they seem like they will collapse every time it rains. Water gets in every time and roaches get in through the open pipe chases. Especially the punitive seg cells are completely inappropriate for inmates with serious medical conditions, but “the whole NIC should be closed down. It used to be a bus depot. It shouldn’t be used as a housing area at all. They just paint over things to make it look better but never repair the building.”
Because of a lack of escorts within the DOC chain of command, punitive segregation needs regularly go unmet and the already limited social services at Rikers are barely accessible. Since it requires a captain to come down from upstairs to sign off on their access to anything from a phone call to filing a grievance or to go to the clinic for monitoring…often times the captain just never is available.
Mr. C said even though this was the medical facility, he also didn’t receive the same level of medical monitoring while in the bing because of escorts that never came. Even worse, Mr. C, who is dependent on blood thinners and other medications to maintain heart function, was brought another inmate’s psychiatric medications by staff on three different occasions while he was housed in the bing. When he informed the medical staff it was a mistake, they refused to correct the problem and encouraged him to take the other inmates medications!!
“Compared to upstate SHU confinement, the dudes at Rikers in punitive seg don’t get the same care. Especially for guys in the bing with mental health issues, they are not letting them out for counseling or to participate in programs. They don’t have the same programs. They shouldn’t be in the bing in the first place with mental health problems. They should be housed in a more appropriate atmosphere with more activities. This is not being done on Rikers Island. What it is, on Rikers– it looks like this. How does the saying go? Idle time is the devil’s playground.”
While Mr. C was in the bing, he was denied participation in his constitutionally guaranteed right to practice his religion both for regular worship services and during the holy days of Ramadan. His grievances of this issue were ignored. Mr. C also noted that he would skip his recreation time in the yard (the one hour a day in which bing prisoners are allowed to go in the general population yard to breathe fresh air). Mr. C said he declined recreation (rec) since punitive seg prisoners are placed in separate small cages at rec from the general population yard. He said he it was just too humiliating to be seen that way by other prisoners, and he felt like he looked like a monkey in a cage.
Rikers doesn’t have enough programming. “Even if these folks are pretrial detainees and not convicts, there would be less problems and people would be keeping their sanity if they had other things to do. Instead they stick ’em in here and leave ‘em. They don’t have any access to help; they don’t help them. Upstate they have lectures, coordinated activities, growth and development opportunities, and real therapy. This is not taking place here. In or out of the bing. They have all this money, but they don’t provide the services. More should be done than is, especially for people in the bing. People are bugging out from having nothing to do!”
N. C., 54 years old
V. is a thirty-year-old pretrial detainee at Rikers Island who has never been in jail before. He was diagnosed with HIV in 2003 but wishes that we keep his identity private due to the stigma facing HIV positive people in our society.
V. recently spent 90 days in the OBCC bing, from late August until several days ago. DOC charged V. with “assault on staff,” but V. says he was placed in the bing after he accidentally offended two escort officers who faced him against a wall and punched him in the back of the head breaking his nose against the wall. After V. was beaten by staff he was infracted, his appeal was denied, and he continues to pursue justice for his injuries.
Although V. has a terminal illness with aggravating medical conditions that should be closely monitored, V. observed that while he was in the bing, sick call would routinely rush right by on daily rounds, not asking anything of inmates, they were not assessed daily. According to the Minimum Healthcare Standards for Punitive Segregation, §3-02(j) and (g)(2-4), medical staff must assess inmates’ medical condition at least once every 24 hours, keep up-to-date logs of their assessments and record clinical follow up needs of the inmates, but this was never done in his case.
While V. was in punitive segregation, he lost 8 lbs and his viral load dropped. He noted that Inmates in the bing go hungry even if they eat everything on their meal tray. Punitive seg inmates get the same portions of food as served in gen. pop but in punitive seg, the inmates can’t supplement their calories with commissary foods.
Two weeks ago all the inmates in the OBCC bing were served a meal contaminated with poisonous chemicals for breakfast. Inmates believed the green oatmeal contained toxic soap balls. The same substance which caused the August 19 death of 25-year-old Jason Echeverria in solitary confinement. V. was so hungry he ate the contaminated oatmeal but was lucky not to get sick. Others inmates were not so lucky or they refused to eat the oatmeal and protested until DOC search removed the contaminated food from their cells.
The entire time V. was in the bing he had been and continues to be afflicted by a skin outbreak which requires outpatient surgery. In punitive segregation, V. received inadequate care despite his multiple requests that medical staff provide him with gauze dressings for his open wounds which would instead stick to his undergarments. V.’s skin condition was exacerbated by the inability to keep clean in 23-hour lockdown. V. described cleaning his underwear as often as possible in the shower with a bar of Irish Spring in order to attempt to keep his garments clean.
Three to four weeks ago, he and all the other inmates in the OBCC bing were denied showers for 8 days due to a security lockdown following a slashing incident.
V., 30 years old
November 24, 2012