What I Learned as a Kid in Jail: Ismael Nazario at TEDxNewYork (Transcript)

Ismael Nazario – Prison Reform Advocate

We need to change the culture in our jails and prisons, especially for young inmates. New York state is one of only two in the U.S. that automatically arrests and tries 16- to 17-year-olds as adults. This culture of violence takes these young people and puts them in a hostile environment, and the correctional officers pretty much allow any and everything to go on. There’s not really much for these young people to do to actually enhance their talent and actually rehabilitate them. Until we can raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18, we need to focus on changing the daily lives of these young people. I know firsthand.

Before I ever turned 18, I spent approximately 400 days on Rikers Island, and to add to that I spent almost 300 days in solitary confinement, and let me tell you this: Screaming at the top of your lungs all day on your cell door or screaming at the top of your lungs out the window, it gets tiring. Since there’s not much for you to do while you’re in there, you start pacing back and forth in your cell, you start talking to yourself, your thoughts start running wild, and then your thoughts become your own worst enemy. Jails are actually supposed to rehabilitate a person, not cause him or her to become more angry, frustrated, and feel more hopeless.

Since there’s not a discharge plan put in place for these young people, they pretty much reenter society with nothing. And there’s not really much for them to do to keep them from recidivating. But it all starts with the COs. It’s very easy for some people to look at these correctional officers as the good guys and the inmates as the bad guys, or vice versa for some, but it’s a little more than that.

See, these COs are normal, everyday people. They come from the same neighborhoods as the population they “serve.” They’re just normal people. They’re not robots, and there’s nothing special about them. They do pretty much everything anybody else in society does. The male COs want to talk and flirt with the female COs. They play the little high school kid games with each other. They politic with one another. And the female COs gossip to each other.

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So I spent numerous amounts of time with numerous amounts of COs, and let me tell you about this one in particular named Monroe. One day he pulled me in between the A and B doors which separate the north and south sides of our housing unit. He pulled me there because I had a physical altercation with another young man in my housing unit, and he felt, since there was a female officer working on the floor, that I violated his shift.

So he punched me in my chest. He kind of knocked the wind out of me. I wasn’t impulsive, I didn’t react right away, because I know this is their house. I have no wins. All he has to do is pull his pin and backup will come immediately. So I just gave him a look in his eyes and I guess he saw the anger and frustration just burning, and he said to me, “Your eyes are going to get you in a lot of trouble, because you’re looking like you want to fight.”

So he commenced to taking off his utility belt, he took off his shirt and his badge, and he said, “We could fight.” So I asked him, “You going to hold it down?” Now, that’s a term that’s commonly used on Rikers Island meaning that you’re not going to say anything to anybody, and you’re not going to report it. He said, “Yeah, I’m going to hold it down. You going to hold it down?” I didn’t even respond. I just punched him right in his face, and we began fighting right then and there.

Towards the end of the fight, he slammed me up against the wall, so while we were tussled up, he said to me, “You good?” as if he got the best of me, but in my mind, I know I got the best of him, so I replied very cocky, “Oh, I’m good, you good?” He said, “Yeah, I’m good, I’m good.” We let go, he shook my hand, said he gave me my respect, gave me a cigarette and sent me on my way. Believe it or not, you come across some COs on Rikers Island that’ll fight you one-on-one. They feel that they understand how it is, and they feel that I’m going to meet you where you’re at.

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Since this is how you commonly handle your disputes, we can handle it in that manner. I walk away from it like a man, you walk away from it like a man, and that’s it. Some COs feel that they’re jailing with you. This is why they have that mentality and that attitude and they go by that concept. In some instances, we’re in it together with the COs. However, institutions need to give these correctional officers proper trainings on how to properly deal with the adolescent population, and they also need to give them proper trainings on how to deal with the mental health population as well. These COs play a big factor in these young people’s lives for x amount of time until a disposition is reached on their case.

So why not try to mentor these young people while they’re there? Why not try to give them some type of insight to make a change, so once they reenter back into society, they’re doing something positive? A second big thing to help our teens in jails is better programming.

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