Words such as violence, corruption, brutality, and abuse only begin to describe the experiences of those incarcerated in New York City’s main jail complex, Rikers Island. While the experience of anyone who has been incarcerated at Rikers is no doubt horrific, what is more unsettling is the fact that amongst the imprisoned are children. New York and North Carolina are the only two states that prosecute all youths 16 years of age and older as adults. Adolescent brains, however, are still developing and highly receptive to change. Since their cognitive skills are continuing to develop, their decisions are often impulsive but they’re likely to grow out of negative behaviors. For youth, Rikers can do serious damage long term. More disturbing? Youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult facility than a juvenile facility. It is time to raise the age.

In June 2016, we held a Mass Story Lab here in New York City with storytellers all previously incarcerated at Rikers. Storyteller Vidal Guzman was 16 years old when he was arrested and sent to Rikers complex. He expressed that his time on Rikers Island was full of violence and suffering.

“When I had to wake up, my first routine was do pushups, get ready to fight,” he says. “I was scared everyday but I couldn’t show that to anybody else. Not my mom, not my friends, not people that I’m incarcerated with, because if they see that, then I’m a target. I felt like I was an animal. [….] I was just trying to get home to my family.”
— Vidal Guzman
 Vidal Guzman speaking at the Rikers Mass Story Lab

Vidal Guzman speaking at the Rikers Mass Story Lab

Vidal described his life after his release, where he recounts having violent nightmares, not knowing where he was, and hurting himself in his sleep. The trauma that surfaced incredibly challenging for him and his family.

“Being home didn’t feel so real. Waking up with my hands hurting from all the fights I had [while asleep]. For the first two weeks, I didn’t really look in the mirror because I got used to black and blues. Now that I’m free, I’m trying to get my mind back to society. But how could I when every time I closed my eyes I felt like someone would attack me? Jail made me not trust anybody. Not even my own best friends. It made me into a new human being, one that people disliked. It’s like jail made something different. I didn’t even know my own self. Jail destroyed my mind, body and soul.”
— Vidal Guzman

This is an unfortunate example of what is likely to happen when youth are sentenced as adults. When they are incarcerated in adult facilities, they’re more likely to suffer physical and emotional abuse, and don’t have access to age-appropriate rehabilitation services. Additionally, more than 600 children aged 13-15 are processed in adult criminal courts, taking a devastating toll on their futures. This is unacceptable, and action must be taken.

We must raise the age for justice to be achieved for young people such as Vidal in the criminal justice system. To take immediate action, call New York’s Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (631-361-2157), Senate Independent Democratic Conference Leader Jeffrey Klein (718-822-2049), Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (718-654-6539) and Governor Andrew Cuomo (518-474-8390) and make your voice heard. You can also send letters to representatives here: http://www.cccnewyork.org/actions/help-protect-public-safety-raise-the-age/. For more information about the #RaiseTheAgeNY campaign, check out http://raisetheageny.com/. You can follow the conversation and discover ways to get involved in real time by following @RaiseTheAgeNY on Twitter.

Additionally, we urge you to get involved in our efforts to close Rikers by donating to our partners, JustleadershipUSA’s #closeRikers campaign. To learn more about JustleadershipUSA’s efforts, check out www.closerikers.org and visit www.MassStoryLab.com to find out how you can help us bring Mass Story Labs to 10 communities in 2017.

By Claire Zager, Mass Story Lab intern