Ismael Nazario: How Does A Rikers Inmate Become a Hero? As a teenager, Ismael Nazario spent more than 300 days in Rikers Island's solitary confinement before being convicted of a crime. He describes how every day was a test to survive.

Ismael Nazario: How Does A Rikers Inmate Become a Hero?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today - the hero's journey, that narrative formula found in nearly every single myth or ancient human story, including "Star Wars." The pattern is, of course, familiar to most everyone. The hero leaves home, faces a series of tests or trials, finds redemption and then returns. And the redemption part is when the hero really starts to understand his purpose, his calling.

ISMAEL NAZARIO: Yeah, I mean, at times it has crossed my mind that I do feel that it is my calling 'cause I'm passionate about what I do.

RAZ: This is Ismael Nazario. He's 27. He grew up in Brooklyn where he still lives. And Ismael's calling is to help young men stay out of jail for good once they're released. You've probably heard various statistics about this, about how lots of people in jail have already been there before. It's a life Ismael knows intimately because he spent a lot of it - between the ages of 16 and 23 - locked up, mainly on Rikers Island, which is New York's notorious jail complex. And Ismael's initiation into the culture at Rikers started pretty early on when he encountered a particularly abusive correctional officer named Monroe (ph). Ismael told the story on the TED stage.


NAZARIO: So one day, he pulled me in between the A and B doors which separates the north and south side of our housing unit. He pulled me in there because I had a physical altercation with another young man in my housing unit. So he punched me in my chest. He kind of knocked the wind out of me. I wasn't impulsive. I didn't react right away because I know this is their house. I have no wins. All he has to do is pull his pin and backup will come immediately. So I just gave him a look in his eyes. And I guess he saw the anger and frustration just burning. And he said to me, your eyes is going to get you in a lot of trouble because you're looking like you want to fight. So he commenced to taking off his utility belt, he took off his shirt and his badge, and he said, we can fight.

So I asked him, you going to hold it down? Now, that's a term that's commonly used on Rikers Island meaning that you're not going to say anything to anybody, and you're not going to report it. He said, yeah, I'm going to hold it down, you going to hold it down? I didn't even respond, I just punched him right in his face and we began firing right then and there. Towards the end of the fight, he slammed up against the wall. So while we were tussled up he said to me, you good? As if he got the best of me. But in my mind, I know I got the best of him. So I reply very cocky, oh, I'm good. You good? He said, yeah, I'm good, I'm good. We let go, he shook my hand - so he gave me my respect - gave me a cigarette and sent me on my way.

RAZ: Now usually in the hero's journey, the crucible, the test between the hero's departure and his ultimate return pulls the hero away from everyday life and into a world of adventure. But for Ismael Nazario, everyday life was a series of tests. And according to the city of New York, at the age of 16, he failed. He was sent to Rikers on a robbery charge which was ultimately wiped from his record, but not before bad behavior landed him in solitary confinement for more than 300 days.

NAZARIO: And like just to you know, kind of walk you through the process, you're transported out of the building. They make you wait in a very small holding cell called the why me pens, and it got that name I don't know how many ages ago on Rikers. But they used to leave people in that small cell for so long that people would literally start screaming out, why me, why me? So that name stuck with those two holding cells. So you wait in there, when the bus comes it takes you to one of the buildings that the box is in - solitary confinement is in. And once you go through that process, you have to strip down, squat, cough, clear a metal detector, and they shackle you and they take you to your cell. That's when you put your hands through the slot and they uncuff you.

RAZ: Once you're inside your cell, what does it - what does that cell look like?

NAZARIO: Dingy, dark, gloomy, gray. It's like a green mattress and a toilet bowl and a small window.

RAZ: I mean, do you remember a point in solitary where, I don't know, like, emotionally you were...

NAZARIO: Every day.

RAZ: Yeah.

NAZARIO: Every day was an emotional roller, never failed. And it came at different point in times of the day because there's only but so much to do while you're in solitary confinement to keep your mind occupied.

RAZ: What do you do?

NAZARIO: You could have a couple of books, crossword puzzles, talk on the cell door to other people that's in solitary confinement, you know, sleep and talk to yourself and just think and think and think and think.

RAZ: Did you ever cry?

NAZARIO: Yes, I did, a few times.

RAZ: Just because you were feeling so desperate and sad and disappointed?

NAZARIO: Yeah, 'cause I'm just thinking about - look at all of the things that people told me growing up and I just never took full advantage of, I guess, to what I was born with.

RAZ: Was that the first time you experienced those feelings?

NAZARIO: Yeah, to that magnitude, yes.

RAZ: Was it disorienting? Were asking yourself what's going on, what is happening to me?

NAZARIO: I think I came to that point too because I just started to notice and just feel different about myself. And something I say often is, you know, the worst part of being in jail isn't being there, it's getting used to it. And I had to get used to it, and that's how I made it through.

RAZ: So if in mythology every hero's journey has a crucible moment, there's also a turning point in the midst of that dark period, something that happens that then leads to a kind of redemption. And for Ismael, that happened one day when he was 21 years old in the prison yard.


NAZARIO: I just came out the weight shack from working out, and I saw a older gentleman that I knew standing in the middle of the yard, just looking up at the sky. Mind you, this older gentleman was serving a 33 and a third life sentence in which he already has served 20 years of that sentence. So I walk up to him and and I said, OG, what's going on, man, you good? He looked at me, he said, yeah, I'm good young blood. I'm like, so what you looking up at the sky for, man? What's so fascinating up there? He said, you look up and you tell me what you see. Clouds. He said, all right, what else you see? At that time there was a plane pass by. I said, all right, I see a airplane. He said exactly, and what's on that plane? People. Exactly. Now, where's that plane and those people going? I don't know. You know? Please let me know if you do, then let me get some lottery numbers. He said, you missing the big picture, young blood. That plane with those people those people are going somewhere while we're here stuck. Ever since that day, that sparked something in my mind that made me know I had to make a change.

Ever since that day, like, like I went back when recreation was over. And I got back to my cell block, like, I just locked in my cell and I just thought about that. I didn't read. I didn't listen to music. I didn't do much of anything, but I just thought about that. And then from that day on I think that's when I just - everything changed.

RAZ: Soon after that Ismael got out of jail, and he got a job working for a group called the Fortune Society. They help people coming out of prison get access to services and job training so they stay out of prison.

I guess in some ways you're, I mean, like, the journey and the abyss and then your redemption. I mean, if you're going to put it in cinematic terms, you sort of had to go through that - right? - because of what you're doing now. It's almost like you kind of had to go through that to become who you became.

NAZARIO: Yeah, I mean, I guess. I mean, I look at it like this, you know, we all know everything happens for a reason, stuff just don't happen. I mean, through those experiences is that's what got me to where I am today, and, you know, that's how I was able to I guess you could say find myself and find my calling because without that experience, I mean, who knows? I mean, growing up at a very young age, I wanted to be an architect or archaeologist. But then when I started to gravitate towards the negativity, I wanted to be something that nobody should aspire to be, which was nothing.

RAZ: And that didn't happen.

NAZARIO: No, it didn't, but I had to go through, you know, a pretty rough experience for me to wake up.

RAZ: Ismael Nazario, he lives in New York with his two young daughters. You can check out his entire talk at

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