As It Happens

Why this former Rikers Island inmate fought for years to close the infamous jail

Vidal Guzman first arrived at the Rikers Island jail complex when he was 16. During the years he was inside, he came to learn why it was known as "Torture Island."

Vidal Guzman says his time at the New York City jail was like seeing 'hell firsthand'

Vidal Guzman is a former Rikers Island inmate who has been campaigning to close the infamous prison for years. (Close Rikers)

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Vidal Guzman first landed at Rikers Island when he was 16 years old.

In the years he served for after being convicted as an adult for robbery and drug offences, he quickly learned why the New York City jail complex is known as "Torture Island" and "The Oven."

Dozens of inmates have died while incarcerated and investigations have shown widespread abuses of inmates.

But now, decades after it first opened, the jail is set to shut down. New York City council voted Oct. 21 to close Rikers Island by the year 2026 and replace it with four new jails in the city.

Guzman, who has been campaigning to close Rikers Island for years, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the decision. Here is part of their conversation.

You have been part of this campaign to close Rikers for some time now. Why is it so important to you?

If you ever want to see hell firsthand, you should think about Rikers Island. And that was the story of many people in my community who have came from Rikers knowing that, you know, just because they left Rikers, doesn't mean Rikers left them.

New York City council voted to close Rikers Island jail complex by the year 2026 and replace it with four new jails in the city. (John Moore/Getty Images)

You were a teenager when you went there. And so, what was it like to be there? What was it like for a young fellow to go in there, and what did you encounter?

I never knew Rikers Island existed for 16 year olds. I learned two things: Why they call like Rikers Island "Gladiator School" and "Torture Island."

The first week I seen two kids back-to-back hang theyself. And the second week I found out why they call it "Gladiator School," learning that I had to fight almost every single day to survive.

And being 16 years old, when I should have been worried about the prom or worry about, you know, being outside or at a school program, I was worrying about being on Rikers Island thinking of how can I survive every single day.

Why were you there?

I was around the wrong circle. But I also was around people who were the same role models as mine was — druglords, pimps and gang members. And, you know, we don't have no role models and we kind of fell through what we mirrored around our neighbourhoods.

So, yeah, I was in there awaiting trial for drug cases.

Guzman says in his first week at Rikers Island jail he saw two inmates take their own lives. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

There is one very notoriously awful case of a 16-year-old, who was three years at Rikers Island awaiting trial, accused of stealing a small backpack. Eventually the charges were dismissed. But he took his own life. He killed himself when he was 22 years old before he could get out.

[There are] many, many people who have came from Rikers and took their life. But it kind of talks about the horror of how the system and the horror of how the culture of Rikers Island doesn't exist anywhere.

His story is many of people in my neighborhood being harmed by correctional officers, being in solitary confinement, as myself. I was in solitary confinement 2½ years, not on Rikers, but in a prison upstate.

And, you know, just trying to survive, just trying to think positive in a place where nothing really positive was happening.

But if you have seen other facilities, you've seen that incarceration in general in these places is pretty hard, is Rikers so much worse than what you've seen elsewhere?

Yeah, it is. It is much worse. The culture that exists there. I think people don't talk about the fight club that they had on Rikers Island and a lot of teenagers who were 16, 17 years old had to survive.

And we know how much people have died on Rikers Island, you know, from being in solitary confinement, from people taking their life, even drinking the water. We know that a lot of even correctional officers don't even drink the water on Rikers Island because people don't know that Rikers Island is built on a toxic island.

You have to go on a bridge to get to Rikers Island. If you ask me how many times my lawyer came to see me all the time that was on Rikers Island, I would tell you two times.

You mentioned the bad water. But I understand that in the summertime, it was just unbearable and there is a story of one inmate death, a homeless ex-marine, who basically baked to death in his cell it was so hot. Did you experience that?

Yeah, I did. I think a lot of us did.

At any moment we can leave our house when the house is too hot or when it's too cold. But imagine you being in a cell and you can't leave. And I know a lot of times, a lot of stories, of people just saying, you know, I was butt naked in a cell because I'm trying to not bake to death.

I know that you've really had a change of heart. You've decided that you're never going back. But you want to help others re-enter society and avoid what you have been through since you were 16 years old. So I'm wondering though, if the answer is to try, and as many have said, to reduce the levels of incarceration? To have speedier trials? To have bail reform that doesn't keep so many people in remand for years and years? Is that something that needs to be done?

Yes. I mean, we worked on that. April 1, we passed three important bills — speedy trial, discovery law and bail reform. We almost ended cash bail. But we ended cash bail for misdemeanours, non-violent cases.

So on Jan. 1 of 2020, we're going to have 9,000 people coming home from New York state jails. Because you're innocent until proven guilty, not guilty until proven innocent. And that's what our cash bail actually represents. But this is a step, you know, this is a step.

And one other thing I want to say, you know, the person who became my mentor when I upstate and was in prison was someone who had life. He had 35 years already in, 25 to life. No abilities to come home, of being paroled. But he became a mentor. He actually taught me to believe in myself when I come home.

Believing in myself got me where I'm at now.

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention

Written by Sarah Jackson and John McGill. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.