Spotlight on Rikers island
Ismael "Izzy" Nazario has recently become the public face of the problem. Now 25 and a case manager for juveniles coming out of Rikers, he estimates that as a juvenile he spent about 300 days altogether in "The Box," a dreaded 6x8 cage; his longest single stay was four months. After a while, he said in a video, you start to go crazy. You pace back and forth and talk to yourself; your eyes start playing tricks on you. "Your mind becomes your own worst enemy."
|Ismael "Izzy" Nazario|
"They end up getting these very intense doses of dissociative experience, and they get it in an unpredictable way. They’ll get three days in isolation. Then they’ll come back on the unit and get two days in isolation. They’ll come back out and then get one day. They end up with a pattern of activating this dissociative coping mechanism. The result is that when they’re confronted with a stressor later on, they will have this extreme disengagement where they’ll be kind of robotic, overly compliant, but they’re not really present. I’ve seen that a lot with these kids. They’ll come out, and they’re little zombies. The interpretation by the staff is that they’ve been pacified. 'We’ve broken him.' But basically what you’ve done is you’ve traumatized this person in a way that if this kid was in somebody’s home, you would charge that person with child abuse."
|Rikers Island in the 1930s, Lucien Aigner|
The correctional officers' union disagrees with this prohibition. A spokesman said outsiders just don't understand the need for force -- including punitive segregation -- to keep testosterone-fueled young men in line in "the belly of the beast."
I found that turn of phrase more than a little intriguing, coming from a correctional officer. Although the origins and meaning of the phrase are a bit murky, since the publication of Jack Abbott's prison memoir by that the title in 1981, in reference to the American prison system it is generally used to invoke a brutal and unjust system, which one opposes even from within.
But the phrase is apropros, because beastly the system is.It takes already marginalized youth and bestows the ultimate lesson in disempowerment and dehumanization. As Bruce Perry puts it, it announces to disenfranchised minors that, as a society, "we don’t care for you."
Long-burning embers of 1990s superpredator wildfire
"And like a match to a flame, the word caught on.... Life in the 1990s [became] dominated by a sense that youth violence was out of control. The future looked bleak. To explain why, one word said it all – superpredators.... A growing wave of kids who were going to ravage the country…. The prediction was terrifying, and lawmakers cracked down on juvenile offenders."