Sixteen-year-old inmate Trevor Mobley was waiting in line for food on Rikers Island when a Correction officer ordered him to back up.
"I told him, 'I'm next to get food,'" Mobley recalled. But the officer continued to demand that he move, eventually writing Mobley a rule violation for disobeying a direct order and verbal abuse. Mobley, who was awaiting trial for drug possession, was sentenced to 60 days in solitary confinement. It was his first month at Rikers Island.
In solitary (known as "the bing" on Rikers), people spend 23 to 24 hours a day inside a small cell with only a mattress and a toilet-sink combination. They are allowed one hour of recreation outside the cell in a small cage. Recreation is offered at 4 a.m., and to take advantage of it the person must be awake and standing by their cell door. Mobley never bothered.
After receiving a rules violation, each person has a hearing. There is no right to counsel at the hearing. A jail captain decides whether the person is guilty and thus should be sent to the bing. To appeal, a person must file an Article 78, popularly known as a bing writ. Only then is he allowed counsel. That's where Barbara Hamilton comes in.
Hamilton is an attorney with the Legal Aid Society. After a person files a bing writ, she reviews their disciplinary record, negotiates with jail officials, and, if they can't come to a resolution, represents the person during their five to ten minute hearing. She has between 10 and 35 cases each week. Very few are juveniles. "They rarely appeal," she noted. Some are never told that they can appeal. Others may not understand the process to file an appeal. Still others, like Mobley, feel appealing is pointless. "I didn't think about it," he explained. "I thought, What's the point?"
Mobley describes solitary as "stressful" and "emotionally hard." The unit was loud, as people yelled through their cell doors all night every night. But he also escaped the pervasive threat of violence inside the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC) where juveniles his age are held.
"Outside [in RNDC], guys are gang banging, they're beating on people. When I was there, it was like any day a guy could jump on me," he explained. In solitary, on the other hand, "I had my own cell. They bring my food to me. I felt safe in there." Looking back, Mobley credits solitary with allowing him to think about his situation, what led him to jail, and his future. But, he adds, "Ain't nothing good about the box. Ain't nothing good about being incarcerated."
Shivs in a case at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, where some adolescents are held in punitive segregation. According to a report from the U.S. attorney's office on adolescents on Rikers, "During FY 2013, 345 weapons were discovered in the RNDC and EMTC adolescent housing areas, consisting mostly of shanks and shivs," the most their investigator had ever seen. (Gothamist)
In New York, 16 and 17-year-olds are automatically charged as adults. Those who are arrested in the five boroughs and cannot afford bail are sent to Rikers Island, where they are separated from the adults and housed in RNDC, the Eric M. Taylor Center, or the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, which houses the punitive segregation units. Those facilities were constructed in 1972, 1964, and 1985, respectively.
In a recent report on juvenile inmates at Rikers released by the U.S. attorney's office [PDF], the RNDC's Grievance Coordinator described the facility to investigators as a very "hostile place."
"Inmates noted that staff frequently insult them and use racial epithets, such as 'nigger,'" the report reads. "Adolescent inmates are subject to pervasive violence at Rikers....staff use force against adolescent inmates with alarming frequency."
Last year, nearly 4,000 teens were sent to Rikers. On any given day, RNDC houses between 400 and 800 teens. According to Dora Schriro, the former Commissioner of the Department of Correction, this number has remained consistent [PDF]. The U.S. attorney's report states, "compared with the adult inmate population, far more adolescents suffer from mental illness and more adolescents are awaiting trial on felony charges."
As many as 27% of the teens serving time at Rikers have been placed in solitary [PDF], a condition the U.S. attorney's office called "excessive and inappropriate." Disobeying a direct order is the most common reason. The second most common is fighting.
In testimony provided by the NYC-based Jails Action Coalition, a sixteen-year-old sentenced to 57 days in solitary explained, "I'm here for fighting—fighting with other inmates who try to take my food, or make me buy them things with the commissary dollars my family sent me. If you don't fight, word gets out and even more people come to pick on you."
Photographs of gang symbols at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center (Gothamist)
"The under-twenty-five crowd gets into a lot of fights," noted Hamilton. "Often, it's their first time in detention. There's lots of pressure to conform. Gangs control a lot of RNDC, so there are fights." She also points to the scientific findings that teenagers are more impulsive and that their brains have yet to fully develop. The lack of impulse control often leads to more infractions and, thus, more time in solitary.
"We've seen children with several hundred days in segregation," she stated. "One person has a segregation release date of 2018." If this teen's court case is resolved and he is released, his record will show "owed bing time." If he is ever rearrested and returned to Rikers, he will immediately be placed in solitary.
Roughly 70% of adolescents sent to solitary have a mental health diagnosis. Even those without such diagnoses begin to exhibit mental health issues after short periods in isolation. When they do, they often face hurdles to getting help.
Ronald Schneider runs the adolescent and teen program at the Brooklyn Defender Services. The majority of his clients have spent time in the bing. He recalls one boy in solitary who was cutting himself and contemplating suicide. He requested to see the psychiatrist. "He was lucky," Schneider said. "The officer brought him to the clinic. Many times, kids will request to go to the clinic and the officer won't take them."
At the clinic, the boy waited all day before being seen by a person he assumed was a psychiatrist. He said that he wanted to kill himself and showed the scar on his neck. The boy had attempted suicide several times before—slicing his arm twice, cutting open his stomach and trying to hang himself with a bed sheet. Although these attempts were in his file, the response was, according to Schneider, "You don't seem to be that serious. It's not that deep a wound."
Schneider met with the boy a few days later. "No one should ever tell someone they don't want to kill themselves because the wound is not that deep," his client told him. "That makes me want to kill myself more."
That response is not unusual. In his testimony, the sixteen-year-old recounted feeling depressed and suicidal. When he told the officers how he felt, they egged him on. "I stood on my bed, with a sheet looped around my neck into a noose. They [the officers] told me to jump. They told me to jump three times."
Placing teens in solitary has been a long-standing problem that advocates have been protesting for years. But the practice is just one of a broader array of problems plaguing the jail, including violence committed by guards and several deaths in custody. While both Mayor de Blasio and Correction Department Commissioner Joseph Ponte have acknowledged the need for reform, Ponte denied that the issues are pervasive, telling the Times, "We really don’t have a culture of violence. We have problems and we're working to address them."
Hamilton disagrees. "Because it's a culture of violence, there's so much use of segregation. It's important to move away from segregation as a sole security management took, particularly when it comes to juveniles."
Instead of using solitary as a first response, Hamilton recommends that adolescents be given a cooling-off period, which may include restricting the teen to his room. She also recommends that staff be trained in both working with juveniles and de-escalation techniques. Teens that consistently break the rules should be placed in a targeted housing area separating them from general population but not from all human contact.
Schneider points to programs already in place at Rikers, like Adolescent Behavior Learning Experience (ABLE). ABLE utilizes Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) which pushes youth to relearn ways of thinking and acting responsibly. "A lot of the kids like MRT," he noted. Schneider suggests placing rule breakers in a separate wing with an MRT program and specific goals. "Once they achieve those goals, they can be placed back in general population. But they shouldn't be placed in solitary confinement with no programming."
"We have to think of another way to address teenage behavior," Schneider adds. "Putting them on Rikers Island is not helping. And putting them in solitary is definitely not helping."
Victoria Law is a freelance writer and editor. She frequently writes about incarceration, gender and resistance and is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Follow her on Twitter at @LVikkiml