Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Getting Teen-agers out of Solitary at Rikers - The New Yorker

Getting Teen-agers out of Solitary at Rikers - The New Yorker

In this week’s New Yorker
I wrote about a sixteen-year-old boy from the Bronx named Kalief Browder
who was accused of robbery and confined on Rikers Island. He stayed there for three years, 
waiting for a trial that never happened. For the majority of that time, he was in solitary 
confinement, locked in a cell all day every day, with little to do besides read, sleep, mark the 
time until his next court date, and listen through a vent to his mentally ill neighbor talking 
to himself. 
On Sunday, the Times reported that the New York City Department of Correction is planning to 
eliminate solitary confinement for sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds by the end of 2014. 
This decision marks the most significant step yet taken by the New York City jails 
commissioner Joseph Ponte to “end the culture of excessive solitary confinement,” which was 
the promise he made six months ago, when Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed him.
In recent years, jail and prison systems elsewhere in the country have reduced their use of 
solitary confinement, but New York City moved in the opposite direction. The total number of 
solitary-confinement beds grew by sixty per cent between 2007 and 2013. And in early August, 
the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York released a devastating 
report in which it criticized jail officials for using solitary “to manage and control disruptive 
adolescents” by locking them in cells for twenty-three hours a day, “at an alarming rate and 
for excessive periods of time.”
Browder was one of these adolescents; between 2010 and 2013, he spent about two years in 
solitary. Most often, he was imprisoned in Rikers’s main solitary-confinement unit, which is 
officially called the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, but which everyone on Rikers refers to as 
the Bing. The Bing has four hundred cells, laid out along two-story tiers, each cell about twelve 
feet by seven. Bing inmates rarely step out of their cells except to go to court, to the shower, or to 
the visit room. Bing inmates are supposed to be allowed to go outside for an hour of recreation 
every day. But, as Browder explained to me, this wasn’t really the way it worked, at least not in 
the time that he was there.
For Bing inmates, “rec” took place outdoors, in an empty twenty-two-by-eleven-foot metal cage, 
each inmate locked in by himself, with nothing to do except shout to other prisoners and count 
the weeds. Many Bing inmates skipped it, since they had to be standing at their cell door at 
around 5:30 order to flag down an officer when he walked by. “You take a step away 
from your cell door to use the bathroom, and you just see a shadow speed walk by. Then you go 
to the door, and you try to tell him you want to go to the yard, and he’ll say, ‘I passed your cell 
already,’ ” Browder told me. “I used to say to myself, What’s the point of putting up with that?
 I’m just going to go to sleep.”
In the past six months, I spent hours listening to Browder describe his days in the Bing. 
He was arrested for robbery in the spring of 2010, ten days before his seventeenth birthday, 
when a stranger pointed him and his friend out to the police, accusing the pair of robbing him a
 week or two earlier. Browder insisted that he was not guilty, refused multiple plea offers, and
 finally had his case dismissed—but only after he had endured more than a thousand days on 
Rikers. Even though I had written about the Bing in the past, and visited it some fifteen years
 ago, I found many of the stories Browder told me about his time in solitary not only deeply
 disturbing but also surprising.
Browder’s experience was not so unusual, though. A July report by the Board of Correction, 
which monitors conditions in New York City’s jails, found that less than ten per cent of the 
Bing’s prisoners went outside on any given day. “While some prisoners are passing up the 
opportunity to participate in recreation—principally because there is virtually nothing to do 
outside other than stand around—many more prisoners never even have the opportunity to decide 
whether or not to go outside,” the report stated.
Then there was the matter of phone calls. Browder said that Bing inmates got one six-minute
 call a day. If you called your mother or your girlfriend or your lawyer, and the call went
 straight to voicemail, too bad; there was no second call. You had to wait until the next day, 
when the officer brought you the phone once again. During one of his stays in the Bing, Browder
 told me, there was an officer who he’d clashed with who would taunt him through the cell 
window. “He never used to let me use the phone,” Browder said. But then, one day, he came
 to the door and said, “Do you want to use the phone today? Enjoy your phone call.”

At first, Browder didn’t think anything was amiss. Then he tried to call his mom, and discovered 
that he could not get through. It seemed that somebody had reprogrammed her number. Instead
 of his mother’s voice, he heard someone “asking me about what DVDs I wanted to order.” 
He recalls, “It got me mad, because we get one phone call a day, and I wasted the phone call 
calling—I think it was Netflix.” Afterward, he says, the officer came to his cell window once 
again: “He was like a little kid, coming to my cell. ‘Did you like your phone call?’ ”
Again, Browder wasn’t the only inmate who had this experience. A new report by the Bronx 
Defenders, a nonprofit organization that represents poor defendants, recounts similar tales. 
“Lacquan, a 20-year-old client with a history of mental illness, discovered on multiple occasions 
that correction officers had reprogrammed his mother’s phone number to fast-food 
restaurants,” the report states. “When Lacquan protested, they would taunt him and then 
tell him that his phone call was over.”
Jail officials say that there are now fifty-one inmates in solitary confinement between sixteen 
and seventeen years old. By January 1st, that number should be down to zero, if jail officials
 follow through on their promise. Meanwhile, the months that Browder spent locked in the 
Bing left him with his own theories about the power dynamics of solitary. In his view, its very 
setup insured that guards who wanted to dole out extra punishment to inmates—deprive them 
of the phone or rec or even food—could get away with it. Among the general jail population,
 Browder said, “they’ll do their job, because they know the inmates will jump on them. But in 
solitary confinement, they know everybody is locked in, so they curse at us, they talk 
disrespectful to us, because they know we can’t do nothing.”

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