Victor Pate’s piercing brown eyes guard the weight of his painful past as if they hold the key to a dark and lonely place he’s been before. Pate, a 70-year-old who served 15 years behind bars, began to recount his time spending two years in and out of solitary confinement on Rikers Island after he was convicted of robbery.
As he shared his experience this spring, it became clear that the trauma of his time in isolation continues to haunt him even after 25 years of freedom. The memories of his isolation have become a gatekeeper to his peace of mind, and Pate’s gaze is a window into his pain.
“Every time I close my eyes, I’m instantly transformed back to those years living in confinement,” Pate said. “I never, ever received treatment for the trauma that I endured in Rikers. I am in the healing process caused by collateral damage from being incarcerated and in solitary confinement.”
Rikers Island, situated in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, is a 400-acre island that houses the Rikers Island jail complex. This correctional institution is one of the world’s largest, capable of accommodating up to 15,000 prisoners across ten different jails, each with security levels varying from minimum to maximum.
The conditions on Rikers Island have sparked controversy among New Yorkers and elected officials and raised concerns over the years due to numerous reports of violence, deaths, abuse, and neglect by correctional officers. Both the prisoners, and also the correctional staff, face significant danger on the island. Although attempts have been made by the city government to improve the conditions and reduce the inmate population, Rikers Island remains a challenging institution to control, attracting scrutiny from advocates, lawmakers, and human rights organizations.
Pate, now a criminal justice advocate, has joined others to call for a reduction in the use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails across New York State. Despite spending nearly 30 years in Rikers Island, Pate said that the conditions haven’t changed much. For eight years, he advocated for the Halt Solitary Bill to pass in the New York state legislature. Former Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the HALT Solitary Act in 2021 and it became law in March; the law prohibited incarcerated persons from being held in solitary confinement, known as “segregated confinement,” for more than 15 consecutive days or more than 20 days within a 60-day period. The law applies to state prisons and local jails—which includes Rikers Island.
“Solitary confinement is comparable to hell,” Pate said. “Oftentimes you hear people screaming and hollering and people banging on walls. A lot of times, people go into solitary confinement without mental health issues but because of the severity of the conditions and their psychological impacts many incarcerated individuals come out of confinement with mental defects—some people start talking to people that are not there, some start crying out of nowhere, some start playing with their feces—and on top of that we get no treatment whatsoever.”
Despite the implementation of the law, it continues to be violated on Rikers Island. According to data from the state Department of Correction and Community Supervision (DOCCS), as of Oct. 1, 2022, 288 incarcerated individuals were held longer than 15 days, including 136 locked in for between 31 and 90 days. The continued violations of the Act on Rikers Island on Vierno Center open the gateway for psychological impacts and severe effects due to prolonged solitary confinement.
Black and Latino individuals make up the majority of the population in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, according to data about the Department of Correction from NYC OpenData.In 2019, 92% of the people in solitary confinement were Black or Latino.
“The Halt Act applies to Rikers Island, but Mayor Eric Adams refuses to adhere to the legal standing that the Halt Solitary law also pertains to Rikers,” Pate said. “So we are not only fighting to improve the conditions on Rikers Island, but we are also fighting to get a bill passed in the city council that’s called Intro 549. This bill will truly end all forms of solitary confinement on the Island.”
During solitary confinement, an incarcerated individual is placed in a six-by-nine prison cell, though sometimes, two people may be in the cell at the same time. Each solitary confinement unit is constructed differently depending on the facility an incarcerated individual is housed in. During this time, the person in confinement is not able to receive visitors, make calls, and open mail.
“Solitary confinement is an extreme and brutal form of social isolation used widely as punishment in prisons,” said Erica Gardner-Schuster, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in the utilization of group therapy to combat social isolation in people. “Social isolation pertains to being disconnected from other human beings. It is a solitude that is not freely chosen and it often feels depriving. Social isolation can manifest itself in many ways for different people.”
Pate is currently the organizer for HALT Solitary Confinement, an advocacy group based in New York that lobbies for alternatives to solitary confinement in prisons. He and his team have petitioned in front of government centers and legislative chambers for isolation reform.
Pate and HALT Solitary also lobbied for a bill that was passed in 2020 that gave people the permanent right to vote for people once they come out of parole. It superseded the executive order which allowed them to not have to wait for an executive pardon to vote—individuals can now vote immediately after being released from prisons.
For the past four years, Pate visits Rikers Island monthly with members of the Legal Aid Society to educate pretrial detainees about the importance of voting and how to complete an absentee ballot. During the visits, volunteers are chaperoned by members of the Department of Correction.
“Reliving my trauma by going into correctional facilities like Rikers, is a tool that I use for personal therapy,” said Pate. “It is therapeutic for me to be able to go into prisons and jails. To know that I am playing a part in changing and affecting change systematically across prisons and jails is what actually drives me. What happened to me is still happening to others.”
The New York City DOC and the Department of Criminal Justice declined all interview requests. The Correction Officers Benevolent Association, the labor union representing jail officers, also declined multiple attempts for interviews.
A 40-year-old correction officer who has been working on Rikers Island for about 11 years was interviewed for this story. He declined to use his legal name for fear of receiving pushback from the association and the DOC, he said he could lose his job for speaking to the media without approval. In this piece, he requested to be referred to by the letter “S” in his last name.
“I don’t like what solitary confinement does to inmates mentally, but it does make our job easier,” S said. “By placing inmates in solitary units that means fewer men are in the general population and it reduces tension in the housing unit since fewer inmates are competing for resources,” said S. “The punishment of solitary is needed to keep people who follow the rules safe.”
Gaining face-to-face access to people currently incarcerated and in solitary confinement is not an easy feat. Usually, these people are only accessible through public defenders or by family connections. The process of entering the island as a journalist in search of specific interviews would result in a long and tedious undertaking that may not ultimately be granted.
The Legal Aid Society runs an initiative known as the Vote in NYC Jails Coalition where anyone can volunteer to help unconvicted incarcerated individuals register to vote and complete an absentee ballot. I was invited by Pate to sign-up as a volunteer to participate in voting outreach while also gaining exclusive access to people incarcerated on Rikers Island; Pate also volunteered on this trip. Volunteering with the coalition on January 25 served as my only guaranteed opportunity to penetrate the walls of Rikers Island and speak directly to actual voices.
Volunteers are allowed to go inside several housing units in a specific facility on Rikers Island once a month. The entire time, all eight of us were chaperoned and escorted by several correctional officers between housing units at the George R. Vierno Center (GRVC), one of eight active jail facilities on the island.
On this January day, correction officers yelled and demanded that the incarcerated individuals close their blue cell doors; white t-shirts hung along the railings of the top floor of the pod. Multiple metal tables that could seat about eight people each were arranged neatly in the center of the unit.
A group of about 30 or more men stood on the ground floor while others were by their cells upstairs. Some of the incarcerated men had noticeable medical bandages around their hands for unknown reasons. Two televisions were affixed to the wall on both sides of the cell pod, a metal staircase served as the divider of the room.
Demetrius Wingo, 30, who was eager to register to vote. When I finished walking him through the application process, I asked if he had ever been in solitary confinement.
“I spent four months straight in solitary confinement, I recently came out in November of last year,” said Wingo, who is from the Bronx. “Throughout my time in confinement, they probably let me out of the cell a total of five times for 15 to 20 minutes max. The corrections officers will throw you in confinement for any reason: they can put you in there for small arguments or claim that you’re under investigation and keep you in there for months and allege that the ticket was dropped all of a sudden.”
“I know my rights have been violated, but they don’t care but I still feel it’s important for me to take a stand and speak up against this abuse,” Wingo said.
Another individual who goes by Day-Day, 24, didn’t want his legal name to be published in fear of retaliation for speaking out. While sitting next to Wingo he stated that he had been held in solitary confinement off and on for a span of nine months.
“Being in confinement takes a psychological and psychological toll on you,” said Day-Day, who is from Brooklyn. “It makes you question your worth and value as a person. No one should be put in confinement, we are people, we need to be around others and have daily interactions. Confinement strips that away from us and it’s not right.”
The final housing unit holds high-profile offenders, there were only two inmates inside and one of them was the notorious “Taxstone.” Born as Daryl Campbell, 37, from East New York, Brooklyn, he emerged on Twitter as a public figure known for his directness and boldness.
When asked if he had ever been in solitary confinement or seen others put in confinement he replied; “I’ve been on Rikers Island for six years now, I’ve seen it all,” Campbell said.
I spoke with ten incarcerated men during my day as a volunteer, all of them said that they have been in solitary confinement at some point during their imprisonment on the island. Many of them refused to go on the record for fear of retaliation and due to their pending cases.
“The horror, the torture, the abuse, and the things that I have personally experienced decades ago continue to happen to incarcerated people today,” Pate said. “They say they’re the Department of Correction. The word ‘correction’ is a very key and mechanical word that means that prisons and jails should be transformative and rehabilitative. It should give people an opportunity to rehabilitate and redeem themselves—our current criminal justice system does not do this.”