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Images & Voices of Hope | December 2, 2020

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Graphic narrative gives voice to teens in solitary confinement

Graphic narrative gives voice to teens in solitary confinement

All images are used with permission from CIR and Michael Schiller. 




Spending 23 ½ hours straight in solitary confinement, in the box, is a means of extreme punishment for anyone to manage, let alone a teenager. “Why would you want to put a kid through this?” asks Ismael ‘Izzy’ Nazario, the protagonist of the graphic novel, “The Box.” Nazario, who first went to jail at 16, was put through over 300 days of solitary confinement before being convicted of a crime.

“The Box,” a multimedia investigative report, by The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), presents the reality of being a teen in solitary confinement in New York City’s Rikers Island Jail. It’s one example of several nontraditional storytelling approaches that CIR has embraced throughout the past couple of years.


Michael Schiller

Throughout The Box investigation, the NYC Department of Correction refused to grant CIR access or allow any interviews on the subject. Michael Schiller, the project’s senior multimedia producer, said via email that reporters could not get inside Rikers to see or film the youth solitary section.

The CIR team had to think creatively. Since the visual photographs and video were out of the question, the CIR team, including reporter Trey Bundy and illustrator Anna Vignet, turned to the graphic narrative medium.

“With illustrations and animation we could re-create the solitary confinement cells, and give viewers a sense of what it is like inside,” Schiller said. “We did a lot of work with sources to create an accurate depiction of the dimensions, the placement of things, and the materials you would find in there.”


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Nazario’s dialogue in the graphic novel and video is taken from transcripts of audio recordings of several interviews with CIR. The graphic novel quickly teaches readers how to engage with the text.

Nazario’s voice is written in a raw hand-lettered capitalized text. His words have more flexibility and reign on the page, as they are often directly written within the frame of the image or in large sprawling handwriting that wraps through the middle of the page. Nazario’s first-person narration is intercut with journalistic text that reports facts about teens in solitary confinement in Rikers.

These facts include:

  • “Rikers Island houses about 12,000 adults and hundreds of teenagers.”
  • “Most of the teen agers are locked up because they can’t afford bail.”
  • “The U.S. Department of Justice found in 2009 that half of juvenile suicides behind bars happened while young inmates were in solitary confinement.”

The Box is explicit in stating that the problem of teens in solitary confinement extends far beyond the walls of Rikers Island Jail. There are thousands of teens in solitary confinement in jails across the U.S., and it’s often the default means of punishment used for teenagers.

report by Reveal, CIR’s new radio show, explains that jails often over-prescribe solitary confinement in “lieu of adequate staff training and supervision and mental health services for inmates.”


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In their 141-page report, “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States,” Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union reported that “in 2011, more than 95,000 young people under age 18 were held in prisons and jails. A significant number of these facilities use solitary confinement – for days, weeks, months, or even years – to punish, protect, house, or treat some of the young people held there.”

Meghann Farnsworth, the Managing Director of Distribution, Operations, and Engagement for Reveal and CIR, said The Box was distributed online, at schools and at high schools. The Box’s audience has had a wide age demographic, appealing to teens and adults alike. Aesthetically, the graphic novel and animation were targeted towards a younger audience.

Farnsworth and Schiller said the distribution of The Box has been continuously powered by social media. “Lots of groups have picked it up and reached out to us, from schools to festivals to youth arts organizations,” Schiller said. “Film festivals and awards have brought further attention to the story.”


The graphic novel was one facet of a multi-platform reporting package that included a video documentaryanimationphoto essay, broadcast on the PBS NewsHour, an animation and slideshow package on medium.comtext stories, and a Reveal segment.

“There’s a song in the animation, ‘Life in Marvelous Times’ by Mos Def, and I do believe we live in marvelous times, where it is possible for stories to exist on so many platforms simultaneously,” Schiller said.

Nazario is now a case manager for teens and adults coming out of Rikers Island Jail.