Inside Rikers Island

A former guard’s photos reveal a rare glimpse of “the box,” the notorious New York City jail’s solitary confinement cells

Rikers Island is not a prison. It’s a jail where about 85 percent of inmates await the resolution of their cases — they have not been convicted.

Hundreds of 16- and 17-year-olds cycle through Rikers every year. Most are there because they can’t afford bail.

Everyone at Rikers, regardless of age, is subject to punishment in “the box” — 23 hours a day in a six-by-eight-foot cell. About 100 teenagers are in the box each day. They’re sent for drugs or fighting, or smaller infractions like “noisy behavior” and talking back to guards. (See related story and video.)

New York state prisons recently agreed to ban the use of punitive solitary confinement for inmates younger than 18 under a pending court settlement. But the ban does not apply to Rikers, which is run by the city of New York.

Reporters at The Center for Investigative Reporting made several requests to visit the solitary units at Rikers, but officials refused. Then they found Lorenzo Steele Jr., a former correction officer who worked in Rikers’ adolescent unit for 12 years.

An amateur photographer, Steele documented conditions for teenagers in the box. Today, he shares his photos with at-risk youth to show them what’s waiting at Rikers if they wind up in jail.

These are his photos.

Lorenzo Steele Jr.

This story was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, an award winning nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Get more updates and stories from CIR. Learn more at Reporters Trey Bundy and Daffodil Altan can be reached at and Follow them on Twitter at @TreyBundy and @daffodilaltan.

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