Think Outside the Box

Think Outside the Box


Since the launch of campaigns and petitions to end solitary confinement, there have been great strides made toward the elimination of this horrific and damaging practice. Prime examples of this progress are the banning of solitary confinement for all New York State teens and President Obama’s recent executive order ending juvenile solitary confinement in federal prisons. However, speaking as a survivor of over 300 days of solitary confinement at Rikers Island, there is still much work to be done in order to end solitary confinement and its psychological harm on people.

During the period in which I was incarcerated, the longest span of time I spent in solitary confinement (in a 6-by-8-foot cell for 23 hours a day) was approximately six months. While in solitary confinement, I would constantly pace around, talking to myself, and trying to ignore the shrieks of other teenage boys located in cells nearby. Some of these boys had a very difficult time coping with the isolation brought about by being in solitary confinement and would desperately try to escape the box, even overflowing their sinks and flooding their cells. Sometimes I would stand and scream myself, angry at all the tension and noise surrounding me. I even cried and started having hallucinations. At the time, Solitary confinement caused me great emotional distress which resulted in great psychological harm.

During my time at Rikers, I would see many teenagers and even adults who experienced solitary go home after release, only to return a few weeks later. The psychological harm inflicted by solitary confinement would greatly contribute to a person’s increased chances for recidivating. It was upsetting to me to watch this happen. Thus, solitary confinement is incredibly wasteful because, rather than preparing individuals for reentry, it causes many incarcerated people to recidivate. Ultimately, solitary confinement results in psychological damage which in turn requires more discharge planning prior to release in order to decrease the chances of that individual recidivating.

This is where the Individualized Corrections Achievement Network (I-CAN) can help. The goal of I-CAN, which serves both sentenced and detained high-risk incarcerated people, is to reduce the recidivism rate by 10% among people at the highest risk of recidivating after release. The Fortune Society is one of the organizations delivering these services, which are available both during incarceration and for one year post-release.

But how exactly does I-CAN connect with banning solitary confinement? Well, the I-CAN program can serve as a model for how to avoid using solitary confinement. I-CAN does this by using personalized assessments to determine the appropriate pre- and post-services for individuals with a greater risk of behaving in a way that lands them in solitary confinement.

What many don’t realize is that people detained at Rikers are actually some of the most innovative you’ll ever come across. Many of these individuals have so much potential waiting to be put to use. They have all these ideas about what they would like to do while sitting in prison, but the funds are not being appropriated to programs that bring out this potential. Spending money on solitary confinement, which increases the mental instability of incarcerated peoples and thus makes them more dangerous upon reentering society, is a glaring example of immorally and imprudently allocated funds.

Thus, I-CAN’s early intervention measures can help prevent detained people from having to experience solitary confinement in the first place. In addition, I-CAN’s focus on reducing recidivism (resulting in both saving space and money) would encourage public jails and prisons to design similar programs with creative solutions that would reduce their own solitary confinement rates.

I feel very fortunate to have found The Fortune Society which allowed me the opportunity make positive changes in my life despite experiencing the psychological harm of solitary confinement. However, there are many incarcerated people, including some I met at Rikers, who weren’t so fortunate. Rikers and solitary confinement destroyed them. After witnessing firsthand the destructive effects of solitary confinement, I decided to dedicate my efforts to the implementation of I-CAN with the goal of rehabilitating and strengthening people so that they could make a successful transition back into society.

As a Case Manager for I-CAN, it is my responsibility to assess the needs of those in the process of being released from Rikers, in order to determine how best to ease their transition back into society. In addition, I continue, post-discharge, to work with these individuals in order to insure that they are reintegrating back into society and reduce their chances of recidivating. I also assist with the implementation of I-CAN by collecting data on the program so that we can demonstrate its effectiveness.

When I first came to The Fortune Society, I was ecstatic to learn that it advocated for the ending of solitary confinement. Moreover, I am very proud to be a part of I-CAN and its work to assist with the successful reentry of those individuals with criminal justice involvement.  As I mentioned, there’s still a long way to go before we see solitary confinement finally come to an end in the United States. However, we must take baby steps, and I believe that using I-CAN as a model to reduce solitary confinement and its devastating effects on human minds is one such step towards larger-scale reform.

*Written by Ismael Nazario, Case Manager at The Fortune Society

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