Ismael Nazario: What I learned as a kid in jail

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 (correctional officers). 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, everyday people. 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, 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. 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? (Laughter)

But I will tell you this: Being in jail and being in prison, I came across some of the most intelligent, brilliant, 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."

"Clouds." (Laughter)

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 going somewhere, 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.

Thank you.

(Applause)