Rikers Island Officer Describes What a Day Is Like for Him at the Jail

"It takes a special person to do this job," Officer Graham said.

May 18, 2016, 2:58 PM

— -- Every morning as he drives to work, Officer Graham makes sure to do one thing.

"When I go across the bridge, I say a prayer to myself. I'll ask God to protect me from all harm and danger while I'm in there," Graham told ABC News.

The danger that he faces is at Rikers Island, where he is a correction officer at the New York City jail complex.

PHOTO: Officer Graham makes the drive across the bridge to Rikers Island, where he works.
Officer Graham makes the drive across the bridge to Rikers Island, where he works.
ABC News

At Rikers Island, there are up to 8,000 inmates at any time in 10 jails. ABC News was granted unprecedented exclusive access inside the jails and followed Graham for a day. (This ABC News special report was two years in the making).

Watch the full episode of “Hidden America: Inside Rikers Island,” a Diane Sawyer Special Edition of "Nightline," HERE and now on all ABC News devices, including Apple TV, Roku and Xbox One.

After suiting up and meeting with the warden for roll call, Graham picks up his radio and pepper spray, which officers often use to subdue inmates while limiting physical contact with them.

"This chemical agent, O.C., consists of extremely hot peppers and water-based liquid," Graham said of the pepper spray. "It burns. It'll make them stop fighting when you need to spray, so that's what we use it for."

Graham works in a maximum security unit called punitive segregation, otherwise known as solitary confinement. At Rikers, inmates and officers alike call the unit the Box.

As part of his planned reforms for Rikers, New York City Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte plans to stop placing 18-to-21-year-olds in the Box by the end of June 2016. He said Rikers will be the first jail in the country to end this form of incarceration for young adults.

Ponte has already reduced the number of days an inmate may be kept in solitary confinement, to 30 days in most cases, and eliminated solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates.

"We deal with probably the most problematic, most assaultive inmates," Graham said. "I worry about my safety all the time, all the time in here. You got a lot of the worst inmates you could possibly find in here."

The Box houses some of the most violent inmates on the island, who are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. They are allowed out for an hour each day for recreation, as well as for court dates, medical appointments and legal counsel.

"The aggression these guys have — they're locked inside their cells, you know. I'm not used to having somebody scream and yell at me every day," said Graham. "I've learned how to address it and how to deal with that. At first it was stressful ... This area holds a maximum of up to 50 inmates. You walk in, you have to address the issues of 50 grown men."

When he arrives at the unit, he makes his rounds, assessing the cells and inmates.

"You go in, and if they're laying ... you watch the cell. You see the chest rising up and down. You can tell, 'All right, cool, he's alive. He's sleeping. He's breathing,' stuff like that," Graham said.

He expressed the challenges that he and his fellow officers face in the unit. In one incident, an inmate threw feces and urine through his feeding door at the officers as they were delivering lunch. In Rikers slang, this is known as splashing.

"Everybody has an opinion about what goes on and stuff in here, but 9 times out of 10, anybody that has anything negative to say about a correction officer, they [have] never even been in a facility," Graham said. "I'm supposed to feed a guy that's throwing stuff out of his slot and out of his cell at me?"

He continued, "But you still got to remain professional and do a job ... It's a regular day at the office."

Graham said he tries to understand what the inmates are going through.

"I understand everybody has their own issues, has their own battle that they're dealing with. And I try to be understanding, you know, to what I've seen the situation they're going through," he said. "I understand that they're in jail. They're incarcerated. They're locked in, and I try to provide the things that they need. That's what my job is."

After a long day at work, Graham makes the drive home. He and the other officers often work mandatory double shifts, and there have been times Graham has been so tired that he slept in his car because he was afraid to fall asleep at the wheel.

"It's tiring ... You know, luckily for me, [I'm] single with no kids. It's not too hard for me, you know, when I leave here," he said.

Still, Graham said he wouldn't trade his job for any other position.

"It takes a special person to do this job. I feel ... it's not for everyone," he said. "Right now, currently, for myself, I feel I wouldn't want to work another job."

Watch the full episode of “Hidden America: Inside Rikers Island,” a Diane Sawyer Special Edition of "Nightline," HERE and now on all ABC News devices, including Apple TV, Roku and Xbox One.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events