From the book RIKERS: An Oral History by Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau, published on January 17, 2023 by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau.

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.

Now on sale, this new book tells never-heard-before stories about Rikers from a variety of people who have worked and been detained there. Credit: Courtesy of Penguin Random House

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. You were so close yet so far. I’ve seen guys kill themselves, lose their mind, get broken. I had to stay focused. I said, one day I’m going to be free. I’m not going to let these people overpower me. I went for a master’s degree. Inside prison, you either become better or die in prison, or you fight for your freedom. I have children. I chose to fight. I wasn’t going to allow the system to break me. I just couldn’t be another statistic.

RON KUBY, defense attorney: Almost every one of my clients who spent any period of time in Rikers Island has spent time in solitary. It was the go-­to punishment for various disciplinary infractions and including relatively minor infractions. I had one client sent to solitary for thirty days for possession of Tylenol, just over-­the-­counter Tylenol, and some makeup. This was at the Rose M. Singer Center, which has women. So it was used constantly and it was abused constantly. Probably the more horrific stories are the use of solitary confinement to warehouse the severely mentally ill. I recall one case, I’m not gonna reveal her name, but she was known at Rose M. Singer Center as Shitty. And she was known for that because she was constantly using her own feces to hurl and to write on prison walls and to adorn herself.

And she was placed in solitary for months and months in this stinking, fetid, feces-­covered cell. Until finally there were enough complaints about it from a variety of people that she was moved and presumably given some sort of mental health treatment. But the folks who have severe mental illness do tend, in significant part, to engage in what we would call acting out. That is, they tend to be louder and more random and spontaneous and less easy to control and less amenable to things like “Hey, just shut up!” that kind of thing. And we’ve all seen that with mentally ill people that we’ve dealt with. And on the outside world, in the free world, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. In a place like Rikers, the squeaky wheel gets shut down and shut up in a cell so deep that nobody can hear the wheels squeak anymore.

HELEN TAYLOR, detained 1970s, 1980s: There was just a toilet and a bed, and you was just thrown in there, and you took a shower every other day for fifteen minutes. Your food would be ice cold, and the room was filthy. They let you clean it once a week for fifteen minutes. Everything was fifteen minutes. You had to lie there and be quiet, and if you weren’t, they would come in and beat the crap out of you. There was no TV. You get an hour of rec a day.

It was like they were trying to destroy people. You had to be strong. Someone I knew for a long time committed suicide. They found her hanging in her cell. She had just lost her mother and they didn’t do the paperwork in time for her to make the funeral and she hung up and she died. She didn’t leave a note. That’s what they said, that she didn’t leave a note. She was from Brooklyn. She used to go to Lincoln High School with me.

JACQUELINE MCMICKENS, correction commissioner, 1984 to 1986: I have no problems with it at all. I think some people need to be off by themselves. That boy who decides he’s going to throw chairs? Put him in a room and watch him. You don’t go into Macy’s and Gimbels and take whatever you want. There’s a consequence. Everybody in [solitary] will go back [to the general population] eventually. Almost everyone in Rikers will be home in six to eight months. They are going to go back home. Do you want to run into him on the street if you just beat him up? This isn’t a boxing match.

Criminal justice reform advocates hold pictures of Brandon Rodriguez, who died on Rikers, and Kalief Browder, who killed himself after being released, at a City Council hearing on ending solitary confinement, Sept. 28, 2022. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

DR. HOMER VENTERS, correctional health services chief medical officer, 2015 to 2017: We did this analysis of about 250,000 jail admissions and came up with very compelling data that people exposed to solitary had about a seven times higher likelihood of self-­harm and about a six times higher likelihood of a high-­lethality self-­harm. That data and that analysis was because when we gave our expert opinions, it didn’t really make much of a dent. If we had gotten buy-­in with our expert opinions, we wouldn’t have done it.

Seeing what happens in solitary confinement, like spending time with health staff who are supposed to work around solitary confinement, really it doesn’t take long to understand that solitary first of all is bad for the health of our patients. That’s very clear. But also it’s so obvious that solitary confinement is completely corrosive to the health staff who work in those places and that their ability to care for their patients is really compromised by solitary confinement. We have spent so much time trying to get out of the job of clearing people for solitary confinement. It’s so hard to come up with a way, ethically, to care for patients. The whole box is built for punishment. It completely destroys your therapeutic alliance or your therapeutic relationship with your patients. Your patients can’t look at you as having their best interest at heart when it comes to their asthma or their diabetes, when they see that you are part of putting them in, or keeping them in, a place that’s harming them, dramatically and profoundly.

JOHN RAMSEY, detained late 1970s, early 1980s: One time I was in Brooklyn House of Detention, I was in the Bing. The reason why I was in the Bing, police told me, “Suck my dick.” And I said, “Well, yeah, okay.” Went and got some water, threw it on him, but he was on the outside. They took me down to the Bing. While I’m down there in the cell, one day they got the water hose, sprayed me down, and this was continuous; this is what they did.

It kept happening every, every few days. And the funny thing about it, [the correction officer] was from the West Indies. I go home. Who do I see? I see him coming out of a numbers place.

I got bailed out or something and he’s coming out of the number hole. He playing numbers. He seen me like he seen a ghost, right on Flatbush and Newkirk Avenue. I see this guy and, you know, this is a small world.

DONOVAN DRAYTON, detained 2007 to 2012: The box is like the jail inside the jail. It’s like being locked away, locked up and the key thrown away. It’s like you in a little-­ass cell for twenty-­three hours a day, if you make rec for that one hour and it’s for x amount of days. See, back then when I was going to the box, they used to be able to give you a year, a hundred days, four hundred.

Depending on what you’re charged with, your crime, or which facility penal code you violated, you could be in a box for mad long. Now the way they changed it, because of course I don’t know how they didn’t see it like years and years ago. It drives a crazy person crazy in a box, man. They come out a different person. So now they have it set up to where you only [have] thirty days a pop and they take you out. They let you get it together a little bit and then come snatch you and you do a little bit more time. But the box is just brutal, man.

BARRY CAMPBELL, detained 1980s, 1990s: My first time in solitary, I thought that this is nothing. What is everybody talking about? The first time you’re in there for about maybe half an hour, forty-­five minutes, but this is nothing. And then you realize that you literally have no one to talk to, that you literally are alone in that cell for twenty-­three hours. First I did a workout regimen until I couldn’t do it anymore. And then you sing and you bang on the walls too. You can’t do it anymore. And then eventually you find yourself talking to yourself and then eventually you find yourself counting the cockroaches that come through your doors, or how many times you’re going to see a mouse today. And you stare out the window endlessly just looking at the grass and leaves blowing in the winds. People go crazy in there.

DONOVAN DRAYTON: I cried. At the time when I went to the box, where my cell was positioned, you could see the Triborough Bridge, and it was the greatest view and the most hurtful view at the same time because it was just like, yo, I may never, ever go across this bridge again a free man. Like the next time, they may drive my casket back to my dad’s to bury me free. 

At the time I didn’t know where my life was heading with the situation. I didn’t know what was in store. That’s how I was thinking. Like, damn, just looking at that view. It’s like I was just driving across that bridge yesterday and to be in a box now, in a cell where I can’t go nowhere . . . but my toilet is here. My bed is built into a wall. My window is a mesh screen and I can only pull the knob to open the window on a slide to crack open and I can’t even open a window. I remember the first time I called my dad from the box, I cried like a baby. I don’t care what nobody say. Somebody say, I ain’t crying, tough or not tough, strong man, alpha male, oh, man, I was crying like a girl.

Jail already had hit me. I already knew I was in jail, but it ­really, really, really hit me when I went to the box the first time that I was really in jail. I adapted again. The first time I was in the box, a hundred days, a hundred days, a hundred days. I did a hundred days. The next time I was in a box for thirty days. And then, throughout the five years I was on Rikers Island, it’d be like twenty days here, thirty days here. But the longest stretch I ever did in the box was a hundred days. I did four months, almost four months.

KATHY MORSE, detained 2006: My job at Rosie’s [Rose M. Singer Center] was as a grievance officer and we would receive grievances from individuals who were in solitary. And because of where they were, they couldn’t come to us. We had to go to them. And it was a dungeon. I thought that the noise in the housing unit was surreal, but the noise in solitary was unbelievable. You had people banging on their walls, just screaming. It was so bad. It wasn’t even like it was a human being who was screaming. It was more like an animal who was hurt, screaming for help.

I know that they changed the rules so that they can’t hold adolescents in solitary confinement. But they get around that by calling it something else. And the really out-­of-­control adolescents they were sending up to county jail in Albany because there they can hold the adolescents in solitary.

From what I witnessed, solitary can really do horrific things to an individual. And I don’t mean just physically, I mean mentally. A high number of the population in Rikers is already going in with mental health issues.

From the book RIKERS: An Oral History by Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau, published on January 17, 2023 by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau.