Stepping into that cell,
it felt like I lost all hope.
You could smell the concrete, the isolation, the loneliness.
And I knew in my heart that I would die here.
[gentle acoustic music]
So, the first time I went to Rikers was early in the 9srcs.
It seemed, oh, this was where everybody
that’s missing from the neighborhood is at.
My story isn’t unique.
There’s many kids growing up in environments
that aren’t safe, that aren’t conducive to success.
And they fall into the narrative
that society has given to them.
And that’s the way I saw myself.
I’m 15 years old, and I’m already going to prison.
My family, we were low-income, uneducated.
I was the first person in my family
to graduate high school and college.
And so I became a surgical nurse.
I made poor business decisions,
which landed me to be indicted and incarcerated.
[melancholy piano music]
My sentence was 78 months.
My charges were Health and Bank Fraud.
[James] I was charged as an adult at the age of 15.
Sentenced to 12 years in the Department of Corrections.
[Five] I ended up serving 12 years inside.
Psychologically you have to prepare yourself
to survive there.
In a place like prison, violence is the norm.
There’s too many scenarios for things to go wrong.
It’s easy for you to incur a minor infraction
that could land you in a place like solitary confinement.
Having too many pencils,
having extra rolls of toilet paper in your cell,
unauthorized exchange, advocating for yourself too much,
talking back to the corrections officers.
Those are the types of infractions
that could land you in a box the size of a parking space.
[jail cell door clanking]
When I walked in, and I put my arms out like this,
there was about six-inches of space
between my hands on each side of the wall.
[Five] It was a six by nine.
I wear a size 12, so I had fun [chuckles],
sort of, measuring the cell.
So those were little games I would play
to sort of occupy my time.
And when that ran out, you know,
you would just dwindle, and just sit there, and just stare.
[Pam] You’re in that room for 23 hours,
and you’re allowed to come out for one hour.
But depending on what their staffing is like,
you may not get to come out for that hour.
There were no windows.
There are no clocks.
Not having any kind of concept of time
made me feel like I was in there for eternity.
So I live with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,
and for a person like me,
every little detail impacts me.
So me looking in the cell, looking in the room,
it’s totally flush, it’s all concrete.
[unnerving music] There is no sharp edges.
It’s all smooth corners.
It’s all battleship gray. I can smell the paint.
The toilet is drip, drip, drip.
The wind under the door, Whoosh. Stupid.
Starts talking to me.
I don’t think I slept that first couple of nights.
It just seemed like one long day.
[James] The problem with solitary
is that you actually don’t know how long
you’re gonna be there.
14 days could easily turn into 14 months.
There’s an endless amount of things
that people try to do to occupy their minds.
For me, it was important to build a routine
because without the routine
then my mind would take me to places I didn’t want to go.
I’d have really intense nightmares
that gave me anxiety throughout the rest of the day.
They say after 14 days in solitary confinement
the brain begins to atrophy.
The cerebral cortex, the hippocampus.
And these are very important, vital parts of the brain
that are responsible for our actions.
Your behavior becomes more erratic, more violent,
more disruptive, more unpredictable.
[bed frame banging]
And that’s a terrible feeling
to feel like you’re not in control.
You don’t feel like the person that you were before.
If you don’t have anybody else
to bounce any ideas off of,
you start coming up with your own plans.
I hear the cart. I hear the elevator.
It’s up on the floor. I hear the slots open.
He’s coming down the hallway.
Clank, cart, I’m panicking.
Like, I only have two minutes.
Like, it’s actually a process.
Like, he stands up, he steps up, he opens the slot,
he closes the slot, he puts the tray,
I step up, I grab it. That’s it.
Bang! I hit the cart coming.
I hear the slot down the hall.
I have to come up with an idea.
So I say, If I cut myself and I’m reaching for the tray,
and he sees I’m bleeding, he’ll gimme medical attention.
‘Cause in my mind, I’m replaying this whole scene.
I have nothing else, I have no other input.
Nobody else saying, Dude,
you’re talking about cutting yourself.
It’s me talking to myself.
And so I have a fine for cutting myself
because I am destroying state property,
which, of course, is me.
[James] Every mistake that you make
is gonna get you more time in the box.
And the more time you get in the box,
the more mistakes you’re gonna make.
When I felt like things were getting too overwhelming,
I would do what’s called a cell extraction,
and it’s essentially covering your window
so that the corrections officers can’t see you.
And therefore they’d have to suit up
and extract you from your cell.
What it really is is they can come in,
they can beat the shit outta you.
[men grunting] [punches thudding]
Being in that cell for so long with no human contact,
no connection to the outside world,
feeling like I was less than a person,
having punches being rained down on you
was better than not having any contact at all.
When people do that, they’re not trying to be tough.
It’s a cry for help.
I found out that I was pregnant,
and they explained to me
that there was nothing that they could do for me,
that the facility was built for men, intended for men.
They never intended to have any females there,
and definitely not a pregnant woman.
When we got locked down at 1src o’clock,
and I feel a big gush between my legs.
I’m really afraid for my baby,
and my reaction is to just lay back down,
squeeze my legs as tight as I could.
I just remember her screaming through the crack of the door,
Something’s wrong with Pam and her baby!
I remember the ladies, [sobbing] all screaming,
banging on the doors, making as much noise as they could
to try to get someone to come in.
[women screaming] [hands thudding]
Finally, someone came. They got a stretcher up.
They took me to medical.
They did an ultrasound
to see what was going on with my baby.
And the nurse told me that there was no baby there,
that I had passed it.
So she looked to the officers, and she asked them,
Where is the linen? Where is the things that she bled on?
And they told her they threw it in the trash.
And [sobbing] of all the times in my life,
I think that had to be the lowest point in my life
to think that my child was just discarded as trash.
Right after my miscarriage,
they put me in solitary confinement.
[hopeless piano music]
Rage is a justifiable emotion.
Being angry, you dehumanize yourself.
You end up doing things
that you would never think you would’ve done
ever before in life.
That whole system is telling you, You’re not validated.
You’re not valid. You’re not a human being.
And when you lose that,
you just don’t care anymore, right?
You go through a range of emotions.
Eventually the feeling of losing your own identity
can start to creep in,
and that’s more painful than anything I’ve ever experienced.
When I felt really overwhelmed,
I’d stand on my top bunk,
and I would try to get as close as I could to that window.
And I’d look down,
and I can see this wheat grass blowing in the wind.
And the wind,
the grass growing healthy, it had a place and a purpose.
I didn’t, but I still felt connected to it.
I was basically trying to assume responsibility
for everything that was happening to me.
And I did that for a long time,
cursing myself out, calling myself stupid,
and saying how [sobbing] dumb I was
to allow myself to get myself here.
And I really just fucked it up. [sobbing]
I fucked it up. [sighs]
You tell yourself that we make mistakes.
I wasn’t allowed a mistake.
Something inside me said, No, this is not right.
[sobbing] You try your best to do what was right
as best you could,
but you still did not deserve this to happen to you.
And then at that point,
everything inside me, all that anger, turned into fight.
And I was like, Fuck that. [sobbing]
I got too much to live for.
I have too much going on for me,
and I got two sons that are waiting for me.
I refuse to let them win.
I’m gonna fight. I’m gonna do this.
I’m gonna do whatever it takes
to get myself outta here, and get back home.
When you’re in that box, you’re alone.
But I really knew what it meant to be alone
when I was released,
and I can stand in a room full of people,
and still feel alone.
I spent about five years in solitary.
I’ve been home about six years,
and I’m still having the same pattern from solitary.
I spend most of my time in my bathroom.
My son makes jokes about me all the time.
Like, I’ll come home, I’ll have dinner
in a little tray in the bathroom
’cause he knows that’s my safe space.
Back against the wall.
Where before I’ve always been like an outgoing person,
after the experience being in solitary confinement,
I don’t really care for all of the closeness.
I felt like I had lost something inside of me
that I’ll never get back.
The physical scars become invisible scars
when you come home.
Scars that no one’s gonna see.
It’s not just about the punishment that I have
that I’m trying to eradicate.
It is getting society to understand
that there is a level that we have dropped below
that the majority of the world doesn’t know exists.
There is these dark spots,
and these, sort of, safe spaces for pain and punishment,
and torture to happen.
And we pay for it.
[James] On any given day,
there are anywhere between 8src to 9src,srcsrcsrc men,
women, and children in solitary confinement.
And to put that into perspective,
that’s enough bodies to fill a pro football stadium.
I think a lot about that old saying,
If a tree falls in the woods,
and no one’s around to hear it,
does it actually make a sound?
In the box, I felt like that tree.
And now I feel like I owe my voice
to those who lost theirs in the system.
For those who didn’t get a second chance like I did.
This is for them.
[gentle thoughtful music fades]