My name is Lorenzo Steele Jr., and I am a former New York City corrections officer who spent 15 years working on the infamous Rikers Island (C-74), the nation’s most violent adolescent jail.
Voices From the Box:
In three previous posts, I have shared jail stories from friends of mine that served time in solitary confinement. The main purpose for these stories was to share their personal experience with the public on how it feels to be in a 8 foot by 6 foot cell,the size of a small bathroom for 23 hours. Through this series of short essays,”Behind These Prison Walls: Solitary Confinement” written in first person by the former inmates themselves, I hoped to bring awareness to the rampant problems of mass incarceration and youth in solitary confinement.
I want to thank BK Reader’s editor Zawadi Morris for allowing me to share my personal story about solitary confinement. This article began with me attending a vigil for a young man that I never met but we had a connection that has empowered me to share my personal story. This young man was a former inmate on Rikers Island and I was a former correction. His name was Khalif Browder a 22-year-old black male that served 3 years on Rikers Island and was never convicted of a crime.
The image you see here was taken at a vigil that we held in front of the Manhattan House of Detention on June 11,2015 in his honor and to bring awareness to solitary confinement and the physiological effects it has on a human’s mind. Sharing this story with the public I could not just write from a correction officers perspective on working in a solitary confinement area. I had to consult with the “experts.” Human beings that were confined to a small box the size of a small bathroom for 23 to sometimes 24 hours a day. Kalief Browder and 5 of my friends were confined to cells for months and years and all share something in common the “box” is not meant for human beings.
All of my friends that were interviewed were in solitary and talked about how they were psychologically damaged while in the box. There is one thing that I will never forget watching the you tube video: Kalief stated, all he wanted to do was to talk to someone. I reflected back on my time as a correction officer working in the adolescent “bing” and not being properly trained in working with humans confined to a small box.
I now realize after hearing testimonies from the “experts” that the most important person working in the bing area was the suicide aide. Yes, the suicide aide– the inmate that was paid to be a counselor, coach, psychologist, and mental health provider for 25 cents and hour. He was the one who went from cell to cell “talking” to the adolescent inmates about their problems and issues.
I personally feel that maybe if Kalief Browder had someone to talk to, he may still be alive today. Something was wrong with this young man and he was crying for help; he was battling issues that were so strong that he believed the only way out for him was suicide which he tried several times while on Rikers Island.
As an artist trying to mentally place myself in a small box to write this story, it was something I couldn’t do. Officers are confined to “bigger” boxes as they server their 8- to 16-hour tour watching inmates. I remember a former inmate talking about solitary confinement and he said, “being in the bing felt like being in a bird cage.” That was the spark I needed to complete this story. I found a birdcage in the garbage while traveling to work and I took it home.
I “borrowed” my daughters black doll and had a tailor make an orange jump suit for a 9 inch doll. I placed the black doll in an orange jump suit and placed a rope on the dolls neck and let it hang.
Working with dolls to share my prison story I thought about the 100’s of inmates that have committed suicide in their cells that could not tell their story.
According to NBC Contributor Alexander Smith, ”Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for inmates…and in 2011 suicides made up 5.5 percent of deaths in state and federal prisons.”
To read testimony from former inmate Jamaine Richardson, go here.
To read testimony from former inmate Trenny, go here.
To read testimony from former inmate Isaac Scott, go here.
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