Ismael Nazario: What I learned as a kid in jail
November 1, 2014
As a teenager, Ismael Nazario was sent to New York’s Rikers Island jail, where he spent 300 days in solitary confinement -- all before he was ever convicted of a crime. Now as a prison reform advocate he works to change the culture of American jails and prisons, where young people are frequently subjected to violence beyond imagination. Nazario tells his chilling story and suggests ways to help, rather than harm, teens in jail.Ismael Nazario
- Prison reform advocate
Prison reform advocate Ismael Nazario helps former inmates from New York's Rikers Island jail reenter society. Full bio
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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 C.O.s.
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 C.O.s are normal,
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 C.O.s want to talk
and flirt with the female C.O.s.
They play the little high school
kid games with each other.
They politic with one another.
And the female C.O.s gossip to each other.
So I spent numerous amounts of time
with numerous amounts of C.O.s,
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 gonna 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 gonna hold it down.
You gonna 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,
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 C.O.s 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.
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 C.O.s 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 C.O.s.
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 C.O.s 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.
When I was on Rikers Island,
the huge thing was solitary confinement.
was originally designed
to break a person mentally,
physically and emotionally.
That's what it was designed for.
The U.S. Attorney General
recently released a report
stating that they're going
to ban solitary confinement
in New York state for teens.
One thing that kept me sane while I
was in solitary confinement was reading.
I tried to educate myself
as much as possible.
I read any and everything
I could get my hands on.
And aside from that,
I wrote music and short stories.
Some programs that I feel
would benefit our young people
are art therapy programs
for the kids that like to draw
and have that talent,
and what about the young individuals
that are musically inclined?
How about a music program for them
that actually teaches them
how to write and make music?
Just a thought.
When adolescents come to Rikers Island,
C74, RNDC is the building
that they're housed in.
That's nicknamed "gladiator school,"
because you have a young individual
coming in from the street
thinking that they're tough,
being surrounded by a bunch
of other young individuals
from all of the five boroughs,
and everybody feels that they're tough.
So now you have a bunch of young gentlemen
poking their chests out
feeling that I have to prove
I'm equally as tough as you
or I'm tougher than you, you and you.
But let's be honest:
That culture is very dangerous
and damaging to our young people.
We need to help institutions
and these teens realize
that they don't have to lead
the previous lifestyle that they led
when they were on the street,
that they can actually make a change.
It's sad to report
that while I was in prison,
I used to hear dudes talking about
when they get released from prison,
what type of crimes
they're going to commit
when they get back in the street.
The conversations used to sound
something like this:
"Oh, when I hit the street,
my brother got this connection
for this, that and the third,"
or, "My man over here
got this connection for the low price.
Let's exchange information,"
and, "When we hit the town,
we're going to do it real big."
I used to hear these conversations
and think to myself, "Wow,
these dudes are really talking about
going back in the street
and committing future crimes."
So I came up with a name for that:
I called it a go-back-to-jail-quick scheme
because really, how long
is that going to last?
You get a retirement plan with that?
Nice little pension? 401(k)? 403(b)?
You get health insurance? Dental?
But I will tell you this:
Being in jail and being in prison,
I came across some of the most
and talented people
that I would ever meet.
I've seen individuals
take a potato chip bag
and turn it into the most
beautiful picture frame.
I've seen individuals take
the state soap that's provided for free
and turn them into
the most beautiful sculptures
that would make Michelangelo
look like a kindergartner made it.
At the age of 21, I was in
a maximum-security prison
called Elmira Correctional Facility.
I just came out of the weight shack
from working out,
and I saw an older gentleman that I knew
standing in the middle of the yard
just looking up at the sky.
Mind you, this older gentlemen was serving
a 33-and-a-third-to-life sentence
in which he already had served
20 years of that sentence.
So I walk up to him and I said,
"O.G., what's going on, man, you good?"
He looked at me, and he said,
"Yeah, I'm good, young blood."
I'm like, "So what are you looking
up at the sky for, man?
What's so fascinating up there?"
He said, "You look up
and you tell me what you see."
He said, "All right.
What else do you see?"
At that time, it was a plane passing by.
I said, "All right, I see an airplane."
He said, "Exactly, and what's
on that airplane?" "People."
"Exactly. Now where's that plane
and those people going?"
"I don't know. You know?
Please let me know if you do.
Then let me get some lottery numbers."
He said, "You're missing
the big picture, young blood.
That plane with those people
is going somewhere,
while we're here stuck.
The big picture is this:
That plane with those people
that's life passing us by
while we behind these walls, stuck."
Ever since that day,
that sparked something in my mind
and made me know I had to make a change.
Growing up, I was always
a good, smart kid.
Some people would say
I was a little too smart for my own good.
I had dreams of becoming
an architect or an archaeologist.
Currently, I'm working
at the Fortune Society,
which is a reentry program,
and I work with people as a case manager
that are at high risk for recidivism.
So I connect them
with the services that they need
once they're released from jail and prison
so they can make a positive transition
back into society.
If I was to see my 15-year-old self today,
I would sit down and talk to him
and try to educate him
and I would let him know,
"Listen, this is me. I'm you.
This is us. We are one.
Everything that you're about to do,
I know what you're gonna do
before you do it because I already did it,
and I would encourage him
not to hang out with x, y and z people.
I would tell him not to be
in such-and-such place.
I would tell him,
keep your behind in school, man,
because that's where you need to be,
because that's what's going
to get you somewhere in life.
This is the message
that we should be sharing
with our young men and young women.
We shouldn't be treating them as adults
and putting them in cultures of violence
that are nearly impossible
for them to escape.
- Prison reform advocate
Prison reform advocate Ismael Nazario helps former inmates from New York's Rikers Island jail reenter society.Why you should listen
At the Fortune Society, Ismael Nazario helps former inmates from New York's Rikers Island jail reintegrate into society after their release. The issue is close to home for Nazario: When he was just shy of eighteen he was arrested for robbery and sent to Rikers Island, where he spent 300 days in solitary confinement before he was ever convicted of a crime. Now as part of the I-CAN (Individualized Correction Achievement Network) program, he helps those at high risk for recidivism get jobs and stay out of jail and prison.
The original video is available on TED.com