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tv   Nightline  ABC  September 5, 2016 11:37pm-12:05am MST

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this is a special edition of "nightline." tonight, diane sawyer takes us into a hidden america. deep inside the most notorious jail complex in the country. a dangerous purgatory for the officers and the inmates. >> if you can survive rikers island you can survive >> a place known for its brutality. those videos from the past. is it possible to change this infamous place? and the one man with the plan to change it all. "inside rikers island" is
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this is a special edition of "nightline." "hidden america: inside rikers island." >> good evening. i'm rebecca jarvis. ni inside new york's rikers island jail complex with unprecedented access. we meet the commissioner seeking to restore humanity to the broken system. just last week adding new safety measures to protect city jail staff. another look at this special report. >> reporter: come with us to rikers island, the biggest jail complex in america, a place haunted by its violent history. 8,000 inmates living in a kind
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>> if you can survive rikers island, you can survive anything. >> i'd like to kill myself! >> this is a bad-ass place. >> reporter: one road in, across a bridge. the inmates have nicknamed this the bridge of pain. on one side of the car we can see the new york skyline, celebrating possibility and hope. and straight ahead, a world apart. we've been granted unprecedented access. >> hi, i'm sawyer with abc. >> reporter: our cameras will have seven days inside. 70 hours. once we of rikers, be ready for the unexpected. >> stand by for one second, stand by for one second. >> reporter: during our time there, nine different alarms, lockdowns -- >> quickly. >> the numbers that are being deployed right now indicates something pretty big, doesn't it? >> reporter: on the other side of this maze of doors the question we came here to answer. is it really possible to change this notorious, explosive place? we start with the treatment of
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a door opens, listen. the sound of solitary confinement. across rikers while we're there, 165 people locked up to 23 hours a day in concrete cells. >> what'd you say? >> reporter: you're given a restriction, no interviews through cell doors. it could create heightened turbulence. this is the punishment for inmates who attack officers or each other. fighting, slashing with hidden weapons. >> turn on the lights! [ bleep ], [ bleep ]! >> reporter: as we said, their entire world is concrete walls, a toilet, a sink, no tv. cut off from most human interaction. it's not even possible to see through the opening on this door. and the one hour spent outside for recreation? locked separately into an
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in decades past, rikers used unlimited isolation as punishment. officers the only regular human contact for up to 50 men. >> cell doors open, anything, you just want to make sure that you're going to be okay. >> reporter: as the officers serve lunch through a cell opening, a milk carton. the carton becomes a projectile, a giant spray of urine and feces. >> come back, boom, boom! >> i'm supposed to feed a guy that's throwing stuff out of his cell at me. i'm supposed to got to stale remain professional and do a job. >> reporter: at rikers it's called splashing. officer graham tells me every space around the cell door puts him at risk for the weaponized body fluids. >> fill it halfway, wedge it into the door. when you walk past, they smash it. >> reporter: he says he knows people across the america have seen videos from likers in the past, officers using brute force. but he has a challenge. >> everybody has an opinion about what goes on and stuff in
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anybody that has negativity about a correctional officer, he's never even been in a facility. >> reporter: again, a fundamental question. do long stretches in solitary make inmates less dangerous or more? >> i have a lot of years of solitary confinement. >> reporter: rafael figueroa says in the past he was locked a year and a half straight in solitary, which prisoners call the box. he says he's now a time bomb. how many fights? >> over the years? i can't even count. over i would say -- maybe 40. i've been beaten down, almost killed, exactly in this jail. i've been more in prison than the streets. when i went to the streets i felt like i was in jail. i'm so institutionalized, brainwashed, call it what you want to call it. >> reporter: he says he's changed forever. >> in here i feel comfortable by myself, i'm safe with myself, i'm safe. i can't function in society. >> reporter: inmates here are in a kind of purgatory, convicted
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57% of these inmates were charged for nonviolent crimes. >> first time incarcerated? >> yeah. >> reporter: aaron perry sent to rikers for stealing computers and phones. ended up in the hell of solitary because of an angry outburst. he talks about the despair in this place. >> i see a lot of frustration. i see frustration. >> reporter: commissioner joseph potts says there is simply no evidence this kind of treatment reduces violence. and says, remember, 80% of the inmates at rikers will eventually be back out in your town. he says he wants the officers to start striving for something better. >> we can change people's lives. if you don't believe that, then you've got to say that these are throw-away people. they're throw-aways, violent when they came in, they're going to be violent when they go out, they're going to be the next criminal that does 50 years for assault. because these guys are getting
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neighbors. he's reduced the number of inmates in solitary by 70% and put time limits on the stay. he's created a unit where even highly dangerous inmates are out of their cells for seven hours a day in programs and treatment with extra security around. he's also moved the seriously mentally ill into special units with intensive therapy. but his most controversial and even radical idea may be this one. to be the first jail in the country to get rid of solitary altogether for the younger inma a small percentage of the population, the most difficult to control. >> one-third of the violent offenders? doesn't that give you pause, getting rid -- >> it's not easy. these are difficult, dangerous people that we're dealing with. i'm not saying this is an easy task for us. but it's a much better hopeful outcome than what we were doing. >> you've never been shake anyone that belief? >> i haven't. >> reporter: we are walking in
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younger inmates. the sound wild and deafening. >> [ bleep ]! diane sawyer! [ bleep ]! >> reporter: ponte says study after study shows the adolescent brain is still forming until the age of 25. isolation could change the wiring. 21-year-old richard delgado. chained to the wall. >> are you dangerous? >> no. i ain't going to lie, when i first got depressed, damn, i felt like killing myself. the neighbor next to me heard that, yo, you bug, how old are you? i'm 20. go home, don't kill yourself, you got to be strong. >> reporter: delgado is in likelike er likers rikers for murder. in solitary for an alleged attack on an inmate. a lot ask, what happens to them when solitary is over about and they can't threaten the use of
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didn't sign up to be a crash test dummy. you go back to that housing area that that inmate assaulted you in and you're looking at him eye to eye. and he's looking at you going, i'll do it again. >> reporter: the officers call it punitive segregation. >> punitive segregation should not be dismantled for the 18 to 21-year-olds. not at all. >> reporter: we told the commissioner what some officers are saying. >> we're not here to be babysitters. >> the officer's role has changed. we're looking at people to say, can we change people's lives? >> whoever thought getting rid of solitary confinement was good idea, you need to pack up your stuff and go. >> reporter: consider what happened to officer ray calderon who's gone public, his face slashed by two 19-year-olds last november. >> 22 stitches in my face. okay? this could have easily been a funeral arrangement today. >> i think what happened to officer calderon was tragic. i don't want to in any way diminish what happened. >> reporter: in one sense what
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case against solitary. the 19-year-old who slashed him had been in the box. it didn't stop them from attacking when they got out. >> if we believe we can change them and we stop you being harmed or me being harmed or family being harmed by the fact that we did some good with these individuals, we won't save them all, but i guarantee what we've been doing is saving nobody. what about the history of officers using brute force? >> what's up, big boy? >> meet the inmate who operates as a kind of rock star here at rikers. is life about to change in ways he did not expect? ix. by the time i was 30, i said "that's it, i'm a smoker for life." i wanted to be a non-smoker and i did it thanks to chantix. along with support, chantix (varenicline) is proven to help people quit smoking. chantix reduced my urge to smoke some people had changes in behavior, thinking or mood, hostility, agitation, depressed mood
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across 415 acres, the nearly 8,000 inmates of rikers island. out of sight, often out of mind. >> i was dreaming of being a marine biologist. >> i want to be a lawyer. >> reporter: 55% black, 54% hispanic. some of them kids who walked in this door the first time. >> had you been away from home before this? >> no. this is the longest i've been away from my >> reporter: 17-year-old franklin smalls. his father left when he was a baby, and like so many others here, he's a child of the sprawling projects of new york. surrounded by poverty, gangs, drugs. >> i don't want to live in the projects forever. i want to move somewhere far, north dakota or something, somewhere nobody plans on going. >> reporter: there are thousands of inmates like franklin, sent here on nonviolent charges. he's accused of possession and
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offense. >> reporter: franklin, who wants to go back to school, has written a letter to the judge asking for another chance. >> you write here, i'm a nobody. i learned from my mistakes. there's a lot i look forward to in the future. give me someone to talk to if i feel myself thinking negative thoughts. >> reporter: the new commissioner has given the officers of rikers a mandate. get to know kids like franklin, help them. >> see where they come from, you kind of develop relati rapport. that wasn't something that was widely accepted. now we're encouraged to interact with the kids and that makes everything so much easier. >> reporter: hoping to inoculate someone like franklin against what's been called the gladiator school at rikers. in the past, videos have shown how even nonviolent kids had to learn to survive in a violent world. >> they are very unpredictable. young adults, they act out, they attack each other.
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brantl brantley. >> like we used to have a light switch and the guard would take that off and sharpen the edge and use that. >> reporter: this veteran of 31 years can read the smallest signs of trouble brewing in this population of 18 to 21-year-olds. overall at rikers, violence between inmates continues to increase. >> in here now everybody has on their sneakers. everybody's dressed. so that's either they knew you guys were coming or something's getting ready to they're relaxed, ty got on flip-flops, they're making soup. >> the shoes are code? >> it's not code. if i want to have a fight, i don't want to fight with slippers on. >> are you all afraid in here? why wouldn't you be? >> reporter: those projects where violence is just daily life. >> i see people get shot, i see people get stashed. >> i got cut on the neck. >> i see the scars. that happened on the streets? >> on the streets. a glass bottle. >> reporter: a room full of kids
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do, some of them spending years here awaiting trial. >> they have nothing to do. we did programming up until about 8:30 are. 8:00. it probably reduced our violence a lot. >> reporter: programming. new commissioner joseph ponte shows us one of his pilot projects. units with 300 younger inmates who attend school, then spend up to five hours on everything from computer training to anger management to horticulture. >> right here we got strawberries. >> reporter: in another part of attend college classes, job training. we meet 50-year-old greg ferguson who had to wait at rikers four years just to get a trial. >> i had nine different judges. 23 different adas on my case since i've been incarcerated. >> reporter: he says this part of jail has dramatically changed. >> this house we've been here since last year. august, no cuttings, no slashes, no stabbings. >> reporter: ponte says there's evidence the reforms work.
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the whole jail. and time to retrain the 7,300 officers and staff. the ones who made rikers notorious with scenes like these. brutal force on a young man who left this place and committed suicide. brutal force on mentally ill inmates. the retraining teaches officers to defuse tense situations. and use tools like pepper spray instead of brute force. the use of pepper spray is up. but serious violence between officers and inmates is way down. and ponte says a lot of the officers are ready to try to help. >> i grew true that nothing. i respect what you're doing for me. >> i see what you guys understand is a lot of us grew up from nothing. i grew upin south bronx. my family had no money. my mother was strict and we had to follow the rules. body my parents worked. we had nothing. i think sometimes you look at us and think we had it all so we don't understand what you guys go through. and that's not true. >> reporter: like the story of
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up in a rough world. we noticed taylon murphy called bam bam had a charismatic hold on fellow inmates at rikers. growing up, he had a superstar older sister sought after by colleges, named by espn as one of the best basketball players in the country. >> i looked up to her. that was my role model. she played basketball real well. real good at basketball. i love basketball too. i wasn't as good as her. but i going to get you. >> reporter: but one night in the stairwell of the housing project where they lived, members of a rival gang came in and shot his sister three times. inside, he's the king of resilience, encouraging everyone to focus on a positive future. >> it keeps a lot of stress off my mine, keeps me looking forward to i got plans, the goals that i set for myself. i'm young. so prepare and ready for the girls, the females.
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as a suicide prevention aide, which means walking the halls at night. >> check to make sure everybody alive and breathing and nobody got no suicidal thoughts in case they got something on their mind they want to talk about. >> reporter: the radio is playing, the song "exchange" by bryson tiller. ? do this favor for me ? ? >> light out. there you go, brody. >> reporter: but we learn that there is another part of murphy's story. a rival gang member mocked the dead of his sister in a video. prosecutors say murphy murdered him. when we first meet, the trial is under way. >> conspiracy in the first. conspiracy in the third. murder in the second. robbery in the first. a lot of charges. i'm confused where they even come from. >> reporter: he says he is innocent.
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happeneds. >> reporter: several days later, when we return -- >> it's 9:00. everyone is locked in. >> reporter: and walk down the hall to see murphy -- >> where'd he go? >> do me a favor, wait back out here -- >> is it okay? is there a problem? >> reporter: murphy put a sheet over the door. the jury found him guilty of murder. he is facing 25 years to life. >> could i say hello? how are you doing? >> just trying to clear my mind and stay positive. >> you've walked the halls, taken care of everybody in these halls. >> i need somebody to take care of me. >> reporter: murphy is temporarily placed on suicide watch. another night on rikers is about to end. the day began at 5:00 a.m., is now about to end with the lights out. and as we leave, a good-bye from
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sheet in his cell. murphy wishing us a safe exit from the island saying -- >> safe home, can't do it today, can't do it too much today. >> we'll be right back. that means you get to try as much as you want... ...of whatever flavors are calling your name. seriously. like new garlic sriracha-grilled shrimp. it's a little spice... ...a little sizzle... ...and a lot just right. and try new parmesan peppercorn shrimp. helloooo crispy goodness. and the classic... ...handcrafted shrimp scampi... can't get enough of? still gonna floor you. it may be called endless... ...but that doesn't mean it'll last. i'm claudine and i quit smoking with chantix. smoking's a monkey on my back. it was, it was always controlling your time, your actions, your money. it had me. it had me. i would not be a non-smoker today if it wasn't for chantix. along with support, chantix (varenicline)
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the average age of a homeless person is 9 years old. ts with education. charles what's up man? -whoa! how can we help? -ah man! wait, is that a basketball player? yes! -wow! my heart's about to jump out my chest man. charles you ought to be proud man. i'm just extremely grateful they were here giving them some encouragement- that's something that these kids are going to remember for a lifetime. did you see his big old feet? look.
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