The Unreal Horror of Being Locked in Solitary Confinement When I Was 16
Illustration by Dane Patterson
"Raised in the System," the premiere of season six of VICE on HBO, focuses exclusively on juvenile justice in America. It airs Friday, April 6, at 7:30 and 11 PM EST.
This article was published in collaboration with the Marshall Project.
I was 16 when I was arrested and taken to the Onondaga County Justice Center in Syracuse, New York, to wait for my trial on burglary charges. A lot of the people I was locked up with were kids I went to school with. I’d converse with a few of them, but mostly tried to stay out of the way.
I had only been in jail a couple of weeks before I got into an altercation with another inmate and they took us both to the SHU—that’s the Special Housing Unit, also known as solitary confinement.
When I got there, the officers made me lay on the ground. Layer by layer, they removed my clothing so they could do a strip search. After they finished checking my cavities, they told me to get dressed.
My cell was filthy dirty, and there were other prisoners yelling at me. But I wasn’t even thinking about those guys—I was just looking around. There was a metal sink connected to the metal toilet, a metal plate mirror on the wall, a metal bed with a thin plastic mattress and a blanket, and a metal desk with no chair. That was it. And I had no idea how long I would be there: I had to wait until a disciplinary hearing to find out.
When I looked in the “mirror,” I saw that I had blood running in my eye from the fight. So I yelled for the CO to get a doctor; I didn't want to let it get infected. It was after they patched me up and I was just there, alone, that I started thinking: I'm not leaving this cell—ever—unless I'm going to take a shower or get a visitor. I just kept seeing myself there for the rest of my life. I felt like an animal inside a cage.
That first day in the SHU, my body was sore from the fight, so I just tried to sleep the day away, but I couldn’t. The guys in the cells on both sides of me were yelling and banging on my walls. Eventually, I managed to fall asleep, only to wake up to the sound of a CO inserting a key and opening my door slot to push a food tray through. It made a thunderous slam—probably the worst sound I've ever heard in my life. After that I just sat there, looking around. There was one window, and all I could see were the sides of the other jail buildings.
Sitting in the SHU, you have nothing to do but think. You think about everything in your life—and they aren’t very pleasant things. All I thought about was negatives: my ongoing case, my troubles at home, and my family.
You're just surrounded by four walls with a dim light, with no cellmate, no commissary, no pictures of your family. And that’s day after day after day. Before long, your emotions get pushed to a limit you didn't even know they could be pushed to. It was enough to push me to the brink of not wanting to live—but I have always had the self-fortitude to not wanna end my life.
Before I went to the SHU, my life may not have been perfect, but I was a bright, excited young man. When I came to jail, I knew I had made mistakes but was still trying to enjoy myself. In the SHU, I felt unbearable pain, and it changed me; I felt like I aged ten years just by doing 20 days in there.
Once I got out of the SHU, it was hard for me to readjust to interacting with people because I was so used to being alone. You feel like nobody's there for you. The only person that could be there for you was yourself.
While waiting to go to trial, I made two more visits to the SHU. Once for a misidentification—two guys got into a physical confrontation, and the CO assumed I was involved. I pled my case to anybody who would listen. A lieutenant went back and viewed the cameras, and they let me out. But it was still nerve-wracking to know that I could take time in the SHU for something I didn't do.
My last trip to the SHU was after a couple guys tried to fight me and my buddies. We were just defending ourselves, but we wound up going to the SHU anyway. I was depressed every time I went to the SHU, but after that first time, at least I knew what to expect.
Outside of the SHU, I would go to school, church services and other programs during the week. But when I was sent to the SHU, each time at my disciplinary hearings they told me I wasn’t allowed to go to programs while I was in there. Instead, a teacher would come twice a week and bring a manila folder filled with worksheets, newspaper articles, crossword puzzles and word searches to my cell.
They wouldn't even collect it when they came to bring the next packet. I would have it done, and they would say, "Oh, no. You keep that. That's for you."
"Well, what did you bring it for?” I said to them. “Some of this stuff I needed help on, some of this stuff in here I didn't understand. You're not here to teach me, you're just giving it to me and leaving.” They didn't grade it or nothing; I never received any teaching, no schooling, in the SHU.
It made me feel even worse about my situation. I’d think to myself, I'm here facing charges that nobody's proved me guilty of, but you treat me like an animal.
The 11 months I spent at the Justice Center changed me for better and for worse. I'm more in tune with myself, because in solitary, you get to know yourself, who you really are. At the same time, you get to know every deep, dark feeling that you have, which can be difficult to handle when you’re still a kid.
Now, I’m mentoring younger kids I know, encouraging them to leave the street life because what I went through I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Jordan asked to be identified by his middle name because a court granted him youthful offender status and sealed his record. He took a plea deal in 2016 and spent 15 months in prison after leaving the Onondaga County Justice Center. He was a lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the county brought by the NYCLU and Legal Services of Central New York, alleging a failure to protect minors from harm and provide adequate education. The county settled in 2017, agreeing to limit the use of solitary for teenagers. Read more about the issue here.
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