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In Author Ian Manuel's 'My Time Will Come,' A Look At Life In Solitary Confinement

This file photo shows a solitary confinement cell called "the bing," at New York's Rikers Island jail.  (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
This file photo shows a solitary confinement cell called "the bing," at New York's Rikers Island jail. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Ian Manuel was placed in solitary confinement for a crime he committed just after the seventh grade. For 18 years, he lived in a 7-by-10-foot room. For 18 years, he did not have a window. Now, he’s telling his story about his life and experience in solitary confinement.

Guests

Ian Manuel, activist and poet. Author of the new memoir “My Time Will Come.” He spent 18 years in solitary confinement for a crime he committed at the age of 13. He was released in 2016 after 26 years of imprisonment. (@IanManOfficial)

Tammie Gregg, deputy director of the National Prison Project at the ACLU.

Interview Highlights

Why were you first put into solitary confinement?

Ian Manuel: “Initially, on my first day in prison, I was placed in solitary confinement based on my age and how small I was. They couldn’t even find clothes to fit me. I remember showing up to the reception center at Lake Butler, Florida, and the officer saying, How old are you? And I said 14, because I had just turned 14 that March. And this was May of ‘91. And they said K wing, we got another one of those … kids down here for them. And then they placed me in solitary confinement. Then I was punished because I didn’t want to clean my cell on the Sabbath day. I was slapped and beat up by a notorious captain at Lake Butler by the name of Captain Young. And they placed me in a deeper form of solitary where there’s cell bars and a door, and they closed the door and you can’t even see out. There’s no light.

“I remember laying on that floor that night waking up, as I describe in my book, My Time Will Come, with cockroaches crawling over my body. And I just couldn’t believe how far I had fell from just being a little kid at my mom’s house, to having cockroaches crawling on my body in solitary confinement. That only lasted for three weeks. And then I was placed in open population, adult prison at Apalachee Correctional Institution.

“And I was given all the responsibilities of an adult except I was still a child. So I behaved as a child. Even the Bible says when I thought as a child, I behaved as a child. Well, I’d walk in the grass when I was supposed to be walking on a sidewalk, the officers would yell at me. I’d yell back. I was in places I wasn’t supposed to be like a typical teenager. I’d be in another dormitory that I wasn’t assigned to. And all those things caused me to accumulate disciplinary reports. And so the prison deemed me a management problem for these minor disciplinary infractions. And at the age of 15, I was placed in a long-term solitary confinement in November 1992. When George H.W. Bush was president. And I wasn’t released from solitary until November 2010. So 18 consecutive years.”

On how he spent all those years in solitary

Ian Manuel: “I was in so many different cells over the course of my 26 years, but the cell that I spent the majority of my time in, it’s a … short, small cell with about five to nine steps, with a size nine and a half shoe, from the back wall to the front door. There’s a steel bunk with a thin mattress that has been stained from other inmates urine.

“And, you know, there’s some thin sheets. There’s a steel toilet. A steel sink. There’s a front door with a rectangle-sized window, that if you’re caught looking out of when a female staff member’s on the wing, you’re gassed with high-powered chemical agents. And there’s a light that is kept on for mostly 16 hours a day, burning in your eyes. It’s probably the reason I wear reading glasses to this day.”

What would you hear when you were inside that cell?

Ian Manuel: “Sometimes there was the sounds of inmates playing chess, calling out chess numbers. The number 13 to 29 resounds in my mind because that’s a chess move where the pawn is pushed out in front. It makes playing chess to break up the monotony of the day. There’s arguments between the fellow prisoners just to pass the times. Arguments about things that they did in society, about their favorite sports team, about their favorite singers, actors, who could sing the best, who could rap the best.

“There’s an officer screaming, Female staff on the wing. Get off the door. There’s a nurse on the wing. There’s sounds of a flattened toothpaste tube sliding across the floor as you fish for a magazine or something from another inmate. So you could try to read it. And if you’re caught fishing for a magazine, or with this other inmates’ magazine, your time in solitary confinement is extended for an additional six months.”

Excerpt From “My Time Will Come” by Ian Manuel

“My story has been told many times. you can read it in police files and court records, case notes and daily logs. The story of my birth, for example, told by a judge sentencing my mother to prison soon after my arrival in this world. And there’s the story of that day when I was five, in the case notes of a social worker who drove me to a foster home and then, a few days later, drove me back to the projects, to the room I had shared with my abuser. The story of my childhood was told multiple times by juvenile probation officers who found me to be a problem best managed inside the walls of institutions. In the illustrious space—cold and intensely bright in my memory—of an adult courtroom, it would be the robed and sober voice of a judge who would foretell my death when I was thirteen. Relying on the stories of police officers, lawyers, and other accomplished professionals, he would send me to Florida State Prison, never to be released. As I said, my story has been told many times and by highly regarded experts in their fields. But today, if you’ll bear with me, I would like to try to tell it to you myself. I have reason to believe the experts may be wrong about me. You see, today, thirty years later, I am neither in prison nor dead.

“In the stories told of my life, each begins with a crime. A crime by my mother against a neighbor, crimes against me, crimes committed by me. My stories are defined by legal codes and diagnostic categories. To tell you the truth, I struggle to shake these, to describe myself to you as I am, in all that I am. My sense, though, is that this is an experience true to millions of people who, like me, happened to be born into poor neighborhoods at a time in history when the intervention of choice is arrest and incarceration—even for mothers of infants, even for young children. I would like not to begin my story as the experts have done, with the story of a crime. But that is, in fact, the reality of this life. So I will begin with the story of the worst thing I have ever done, the crime I was sentenced to die in prison for. But I begin here not because, as the experts have said, this defines me. I begin here because I hurt someone very badly during a time in my life when I was blinded by my own hurt. And I want to admit to it. I want to state the truth of it. I think I owe it to her. And to the child that I was. I think we need to speak about harm, what we’ve done, what’s been done to us, because that is what will open doors, what will air out and begin to heal the wounds we carry and have caused. And that is what will allow for new stories to begin to be told. I am telling you my story today because I want to tell a story of hope and meaning, of being one among a human family.


“I shot Debbie Baigrie on July 27, 1990. I was thirteen and, along with a group of older boys, I was trying to rob her and the man who was walking her to her car. He, of course, was walking her to her car out of concern for her being a woman, alone at night, in a parking lot. My friends and I were the embodiment of his reasons for concern and I believe that night I only confirmed any beliefs he had about kids like me.

“At the time, my mom and I were homeless, staying with a family friend in the housing projects I had called home most of my life. Central Park Village had been a prosperous, entrepreneurial black community before I was born. But after deadly riots and looting there in 1967, the neighborhood had fallen on hard times. It was now a complex of run-down, low-rise buildings, riddled with poverty, gang violence, drugs, and crime. Because Mom had let the rent on our place fall behind, she and I were staying with a lady known to me as Aunt Louise, though she was no relation of ours. During my childhood, Central Park Village was a place of comings and goings, among family, friends, and acquain­tances; the place was full of people like us—roamers.


“Guns were not new to me. When I was eleven, my friend Marquis and I had gone jacking, committing our first crimes together—robbing people, seventy-five cents here, two dollars there—only to be arrested. The gun we had brandished turned out to be an old, rusty, empty Colt M1911, the standard-issue sidearm of the U.S. Armed Forces from 1911 to 1986. Toward the end of that school year, during a conflict I had with a classmate, Marquis’s cousin had pulled the gun out, pointed it at my opponent, and insisted that I fight him. The gun I would end up using to shoot Debbie was a .32 revolver.

“On the night of the crime, I met up with Marquis, who was fourteen at the time, and two older boys from the neighborhood and we walked downtown. Downtown Tampa was my stomping ground for a couple of years. I knew where police cars were stationed; where it was too crowded to pull off a robbery; where it would be unlikely for us to get caught.

“We continued downtown, searching for the right place at the right time, but I was nervous.

“Marquis was stern in a friendly way: “Man, Jim-Jim, look it done turned nighttime and we ain’t done nothing yet. The next people we come across, we jacking, whether it’s too open or not.” Everybody agreed. We didn’t have far to go before an opportunity presented itself: as we were walking across the parking lot, we turned to see a white man and woman, leaning against a car, rapt in conversation.

“One of the boys cooked up a plan on the spot. “Jim-Jim, I’m gonna go over and ask ’em for some change. When you see one o’ dem reach for dey money, do your thing.” “All right,” I said. Marquis and the other boy stood right behind me. “Do one of y’all have change for a twenty?” the boy asked. I thought I heard either the man or the woman say yes. At the top of my lungs I yelled, “It’s a jack, y’all, give it up,” pointing the revolver at them. The woman stared at the gun and screamed, which startled me. Before I knew it I had pulled the trigger and she took off, running.

“TAKE IT BACK

“Her mouth opens as she inhales her scream.

The bullets are reloaded because the trigger was never squeezed.

We’re back at the start when we first asked for change.

And her face is the same because she never felt that pain.

He isn’t on his knees—looking me in my eyes.

Like I’m the last thing he’ll see for the first and final time.

The song self-destruction isn’t resounding in my mind.

We’re just standing at the scene. Before it became a crime.

If I could see into the future. Sitting on that porch on India.

When my codefendants came to visit. I’d’ve chosen to stay with Lydia.

I’m back in Central Park. Two-story apartment building.

Never knowing where I’m going . . .”

Excerpted from My Time Will Come by Ian Manuel. Copyright © 2021 by Ian Manuel. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

From The Reading List

New York Times: “I Survived 18 Years in Solitary Confinement” — “Imagine living alone in a room the size of a freight elevator for almost two decades.”

Los Angeles Times: “Brutalized in prison and freed by Bryan Stevenson, a survivor writes his story” — “As a child in one of Tampa, Fla.’s poorest and most violent housing projects, Ian Manuel was abused or abandoned by each member of his immediate family.”

Washington Post: “Opinion: Prolonged solitary confinement is torture. It’s time for all states to ban it.” — “Earlier this month, New York enacted a law affirming what medical experts, human rights advocates and survivors have been saying for years: Prolonged solitary confinement is torture.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.