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What It Feels Like to Be Kept in Los Angeles Prisons When You’re a Teen

LOS ANGELES — Kim McGill was only 12 years old when she was first arrested and incarcerated for grand larceny. As a young girl, she had taken order requests from individuals, stolen and sold the items. At 13, she was charged with a felony for the second time and imprisoned in a juvenile detention center for shoplifting more than $1,000 worth of merchandise. After that she was prosecuted for several misdemeanor cases, both as a youth and an adult.

As a former felon and now the lead organizer of the Youth Justice Coalition, McGill is against confinement.

“It's not about fixing the system so people re-enter with more resources,” she said. “It's about knowing that you can't get well in a cell, you can't grow in a cage.”

McGill’s memories still gnaw at her today. She described sleep deprivation due to extreme air conditioning, fluorescent lighting and lack of sufficiently warm clothing. She recalled the absence of any external stimulation: the lack of windows, the inability to see the sky and the deficiency of engaging activities.

The walls were all one color, usually beige or white. Steel cells, tables and beds were the only items in the lock-ups, unless a concrete slab protruded from the wall as a makeshift frame. Sleeping on the floor was not uncommon, nor was seeing the physically most vulnerable people being forced to sleep with their heads next to the toilet in an overcrowded cell. McGill remembered how inmates were talked at, not spoken to; and how the explicit use of her last name made her fail to feel like a human being, let alone like a child.

The United States leads the industrialized world in the number and percentage of children it locks up in juvenile detention facilities, according to Human Rights Watch.

In California, 71,923 juveniles were arrested in 2015 according to a report from the California Department of Justice. Slightly more than 58,000 were referred to probation, about 13,000 were counseled and released, and approximately 1,000 youth were turned over to another agency.

Meanwhile, improvements have been made. Lawmakers unveiled a list of bills in March 2017 in an attempt to divert youth from a school-to-prison pipeline and keep them out of the juvenile justice system.

“We have made really big progress, we just have to do a lot more,” said Dr. Bo Kyung (Elizabeth) Kim, assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “We still incarcerate the most vulnerable population in this country. ... More than any other country in the world.”

Confinement conditions

Among her bad memories were the powerlessness: “As a young person you’re in cells usually with no bathrooms. So, you’re pounding on the door or a plexiglass window ... in the door, to try to get someone’s attention so you could pee. [You are] especially desperate in the middle of the night when you’re locked in, and having people either know that you’re pounding and ignore you, or pretend not to hear you, and having to pee into a towel or into a corner or hold it all night. That was particularly horrible.”

But the boredom was the worst.

Being in a place where pencils, pens, books and paper are all considered contraband, she said, inmates could spend hours, days and sometimes months without the ability to read or write, let alone do anything else to stimulate your mind.

“Once I had a nickel on me that wasn't caught during the search and I wrote with it into an entire cell wall,” she remarked. Although there would be dayroom time, it was rarely programmed to help you grow.

Contemplating whether she had found solace in anything or anyone during her most vulnerable moments, she said, “[I] can't think of any positive thoughts that got me through anytime.”

Young people who go into the system are particularly vulnerable, McGill said.

“Because of your age or because of your lack of experience, you’re introduced to people who have been much more involved in the streets,” she said. “So, prisons, jails [and] juvenile halls are also breeding grounds for violence.”

McGill pauses for a moment before saying strip searches were obviously another distinct memory. She would have to “strip down naked in front of total strangers, not only the people that you’re locked up with but the guards. In [the] case of the youth system, it’s probation officers. In [the] case of the adult system, it’s usually sheriffs, sometimes police officers.”

The stench of the facilities is another feature she vividly recalls as being unbearable. “I think that anyone who’s been locked up can smell … exactly how it smelled when we were there,” she said. “And you can differentiate between the facilities you’ve been based on the smells they had.

“Sounds at night are also something that never leaves you,” McGill said, “whether it’s the pounding of doors, crying, screaming, people mumbling to themselves, people rhyming … yelling, arguing with each other.”

But even so, McGill said she was better off than many other people who have been in solitary confinement and were sentenced to life in prison.

Racial profiling

One of the most impactful things for her development was growing up in communities of color, she said.

“I think I had the benefit of seeing the obvious issues in the system from a very young age … When you’re white [like me], and you’re going through it, it’s really obvious to you that you’re getting preferential treatment.”

On the streets, McGill was treated as a victim while her friends were viewed as criminals. She recalled being taken aside by police twice and asked if she had been kidnapped. She was constantly queried about why she was in specific areas, if she knew they were dangerous and if she wanted a ride home.

A 2017 report from Human Impact Partners found that in 2015, 88 percent of juveniles in California who were tried as adults were youth of color.

The record also cited evidence of “rampant racial inequities … in the way youth of color are disciplined in school, policed and arrested, detained, sentenced, and incarcerated.”

Crissel Rodriguez, the Southern California regional coordinator at the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, agreed.

“We see that the zero tolerance policy has actually really affected communities of color,” Rodriguez said.

Kim said youth of color are much more likely to be in touch with police negatively at every single point of contact in the system, and they are more likely to be taken further into the system than out of it.

“The justification for that for the judges themselves, is that ... it’s dangerous, so we are going to detain them,” Kim said. “It’s a way to protect them. But under the purview of protecting them, they’ve further introduced them to a system that brings them back over and over again.”

Detention dispute

In 2012 Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 9, which supported judges reconsidering the sentences of juveniles punished to life in prison. After that, most of the state’s juvenile life-sentenced prisoners are being resentenced, according to The Sentencing Project.

Brown signed SB 394 in October, legislation that now outlaws the state from sentencing youth offenders to life in prison without possibility for parole.

Today McGill, 36, leads the Youth Justice Coalition, an organization that challenges the U.S. “addiction” to incarceration and race, gender and class discrimination in the juvenile “injustice” systems. To her, and most people in the coalition, this crusade is personal.

“The greatest feeling that myself, and I think other people, have got has come through our organizing and fighting back to change the system,” she said. “It’s healed us more than any other single thing has.”


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Gun Rights, Gun Control and a Local Push to Tax Guns and Their Ammo

Ambitious and certain to draw criticism, President Barack Obama’s plan to rid the nation of the most powerful weapons on the market and attempt to arrest mass and everyday shootings was expected by Congress Wednesday, marking a sharp turn in a decades-long fight to curb America’s gun violence.

As the debate was playing out in Washington, several local and national leaders gathered at the University of Chicago Tuesday evening to discuss guns and policy, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose city holds the dubious “murder capital” title, among the group and pushing sweeping gun control legislation that cracks down on assault weapons. Also on the panel was Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, who this week said that the National Rifle Association’s recent assertion that Congress would not enact the sort of change that Obama and others were pressing, was off base. In fact, he said, real legislation will squeeze through the legislative process and signal real change in the nation’s laws and gun dialogue. Also in attendance was the head of the University of Chicago CrimeLab, who noted that while the United States has managed to improve its count of more common crime – property theft, etc. – we are dubiously at the top in terms of violence.

While this played out, the NRA issued statements condemning the actions of New York lawmakers over a sweeping move late Monday-early Tuesday to ban assault and other high-powered weapons while also addressing the difficult, more open issue of mental illness. This comes after media reports over the past week showing that mental illness is, seemingly, not often considered by gun dealers when selling weapons in this nation.

So even as Washington remains center stage this week in the fight to curb gun violence, increase purchase-point background checks, better mind the mental health of buyers and put tighter limits on the legal gun market - a rights and safety battle that has gone on for decades but whose profile was fast raised by last month’s Newtown school massacre – the ramifications were fast cascading through the country.

Here, in Illinois – and, more narrowly, high-crime Cook County and Chicago – most of the political bigs have joined in a loud call to end the bloodshed that claimed upwards of 500 lives last year. In fact, Cook County, even before the Connecticut shooting rampage that killed 20 children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary, as well as the gunman and his mother, was on to a somewhat different and unique idea: Tax bullets and filter that money into hospitals to care for those wounded by gunfire. The slayings also counted some 100 minors among the victims – and many teenagers are also counted among the suspects or those arrested in the slayings.

Also in Illinois, the battle over concealed-carry permits or licenses has restarted after a state ban was recently declared unconstitutional. Before Illinois lifted the ban, 49 states had already allowed people to carry firearms with a permit.

According to Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, the decision to allow people to carry concealed weapons would actually decrease violence, noting most mass shootings such as the Newtown shooting and the theater shooting in Aurora, CO earlier last year occurred in gun-free zones, where citizens were not allowed to have guns.

“So these gun-free zones become magnets for thugs and crazy people to attack other people because they know they can’t defend themselves,” Pearson said.

Although it is too early to see the impact of the lift, Illinois’ youth is deeply affected by firearms and, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, the state ranks among the top 10 in per capita gun-related homicide rates among children and teens.

And, as with other cities and states, policymakers here – as well as academics, editorialists, grassroots organizations and established institutions – Newtown was the impetus for upping the volume and speed of the political and everyday conversation on guns.

But while big names like Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat, drew much of the attention here – there is more focus growing up around Preckwinkle’s gun and bullet taxes. Preckwinkle, who also wants to ban assault weapons and joins Emanuel and Quinn at events on the issue, has been pushing twin taxes since October. The tax on gun purchases has passed and new restrictions take effect in April, with a planned $25 tax on firearm purchases to help pay for the sharp costs of public health and public safety. With the money raised, the county plans to shift $2 million toward violence prevention, intervention and reduction.

What remains an open question is whether the other proposal – to tax bullets and ammunition for these guns – will also get the nod and take effect to offset medical costs even more.

According to Cook County spokesman Owen Kilmer, the expected funds derived from the gun tax will primarily go to non-profit organizations that have known experience in violence prevention. At least $100,000 of the total will go towards education, enforcement, and straw purchases, or firearms purchased legally but then used for criminal activity.

Also, a seven-member advisory board at the county level will not only oversee the $2 million but also seek out effective models of gun control, and study the possible addition of a youth component.

But violence has always been a problem in Chicago with 2,051 shootings occurring in 2011 and about 700 more last year.

Chicago and Cook County residents met news of the tax and violence prevention pushes with as much skepticism as hope.

Those interviewed for the story, and polled by local media, apparently see the problem as less to do with the availability of guns, and more to do with youth falling through the cracks in the justice and child welfare systems, with broken families that, perhaps unintentionally, spin youth into the open arms of gangs through neglect, violence, and the chaos of troubled households.

With the tax still a couple of months off, there is no good way go gauge it’s potential. Yet, there are those like Briceson William, 28, a graduate of Austin High School on Chicago’s troubled West Side, who said the real problem lies with unemployment, deep poverty, poorly planned housing – and law enforcement, who, according to some crime and academic studies, are quick to throw minors in jail, crippling their opportunity to earn a decent living.

Mark Iris, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, attributes the high number of youth in jail to zero-tolerance policies here and elsewhere in the nation that criminalize ordinary classroom misbehavior. Taken with the high number of police in schools after the high-crime 1980s and 1990s – an issue given greater profile after Newtown – the zero-tolerance policies have, according to many of the same studies, created an atmosphere in schools where police interactions and quick responses to students and disciplinary problems have raised the number of police-juvenile interactions and, consequently, trips to police stations, courts, and even juvenile detention.

In fact, juvenile detention in Chicago has been a topic for debate. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said the high rate of incarceration of minors should be wholly eliminated, that juvenile detention under her watch should be “blown up,” and, ultimately, that “we shouldn’t have a jail for kids. Period.”

According to the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, in 2009 alone, the number of youth detained in Cook County juvenile detention centers was 5,608 – and roughly 84 percent of that population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white. Overall population statistics for Chicago, which is in Cook County, show a split of about one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white.

Not only is juvenile detention heavily skewed towards the black population today, but go back 10 years to a 2002 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, which showed that, very often, youth in solitary confinement do not receive any kind of educational training. Without such training, black and other minority youth are, by definition, ill-equipped to make a decent living once released and actually contribute to society instead of dragging it down with the high medical costs associated with violence, the steep costs of incarceration and courts and the high number of police. Studies show that turning schools into a sort of “police state,” as some legislators at the local and national level have put it, actually retards progress by halting a minor’s potential before it has a chance to be realized.

For example, once a youth enters the juvenile system – especially through the justice side but also through agencies like the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or the county’s Public Guardian’s office – and have their records marred with a felony, the chances of them earning a job quickly diminish. Additionally, without proper education, the window of opportunity gets smaller.

“[When] in a juvenile center of some sort, or juvenile detention setting, it’s certainly going to disrupt [the youth’s] school progress, and realistically for many of these youths, they would have been at risk, [in a] disadvantaged position anyway,” Iris said.

“We can put the guns down if we get money, jobs,” William said. “[The government] gives us nothing to do. We’re sitting around twiddling our fingers all day long with nothing to do, looking at each other, walking down the street daily. I mean, something’s bound to happen.”

Angela Reavers, 36, an accountant from the South Side of Chicago, agreed that violence spins from a vicious cycle – one that often begins with the justice system or the child welfare system. And once a child is caught up in that system, the crossover between child welfare and justice is frequent and it becomes increasingly difficult to break free to a kind of normal life.

For her part, Reavers said, many times when young men and women are released from jail, they aren’t rehabilitated or given the proper tools to find a job. According to a 2006 report released by the Justice Policy Institute, the system is weighted heavily against blacks and Hispanics as white youth tend to have better access to programs and services.

Locked into this cycle, they many times ask themselves, “What do I do to live, to eat?” and in search of money, head out to the streets to find a way to provide for themselves. According to William, this plight was not only his, but many other’s as well.

After winning back his freedom, William said he has had to “hustle,” or sell whatever items he can find: clothes, socks, and shoes. “I gotta eat,” he said.

And so the lure of community in gangs becomes all the more appealing. Reavers said much of the violence and feeling of separation that feeds the gang network stems from a lack of a father figure. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report, 51.2 percent of African American children in one-parent families lived with their mothers, whereas 3.5 percent of children in single-parent families lived with their fathers.

“Young men go to gangs because their fathers are not at home,” said Reavers, explaining the youth’s need for a sense of family. “And to a certain extent, gangs care; that’s what [youth] are looking for.”

But despite his conviction that Chicago has failed its youth and his belief that gun violence will only increase, William acknowledges that improvements have been made to better the lives of the neighborhood’s youth.

“I see they’re starting to [do] a lot of after school programs and stuff like that,” William said. “That’s good.”

Just across the street from where William and his friends spent the afternoon, East Garfield’s Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory High School offers after-school work-study programs for its students to learn basic job-finding skills. Students like Marcus Hallam, 18, a senior, leave class early in order to attend a program where students are taught skills such as interviewing techniques. He is preparing to apply to colleges and possibly seek a sports scholarship.

Despite the acceleration of laws and talk and promises after such a violent year in Chicago, and the Sandy Hook tragedy, finding a solution to gun violence remains daunting. Small steps might be the answer, according to some observers, and Cook County’s proposals to tax weapons to raise funds for uninsured victims of shootings, which make up about 70 percent of victims, could prove a concrete start.

But, this too was met with some hesitancy, as William said he sees no clear purpose to the tax. “People [are] still going to get shot. [The politicians] [are] only taxing them for money [purposes], for their purpose, for their pockets. They aren’t taxing them for our pockets, [there isn’t any] money coming out here for us. The politicians in Illinois are untruthful, can’t be trusted.”

What many say is most important is that violence – chiefly that committed with firearms – needs to be stopped for upcoming generations. Termaine Johnson, 16, is a sophomore at Crane Tech. While he sees the county’s tax push as a “nice” way to raise revenues for gunshot victims, ultimately what he wants is an end to the violence that so bloodies Chicago and hurts the reputation of a city that is otherwise so prominent in business and culture.

“People…dying left and right…for nothing,” he said. “I just wish it could stop.”

This story appears in The Chicago Bureau. Bureau Editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this story.

Photo by Natalie Krebs. 

Groups Urge Federal, State Legislation to End Solitary Confinement of Young People

Isolation cell at the Loysville Youth Development Center, Loysville, PA. Photo by Richard Ross

Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch published  a new report titled “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States.”

The publication involved interviews with more than 125 juveniles in 19 states, alongside detention officials in 10 states. The authors of the report argue that solitary confinement harms young people mentally and physically, with juveniles frequently denied access to medical, rehabilitative and psychological treatments and services while in confinement. Furthermore, the report alleges that in jails and prisons across the United States, young people are routinely subjected to extensive stays in solitary confinement -- in some cases, for weeks and even months at a time.

“Solitary confinement of adolescents is unnecessary,” the report reads. “There are alternative ways to address the problems -- whether disciplinary, administrative, protective or medical -- which officials typically cite as justifications for solitary confinement.”

The authors of the report state that approximately one third of the young people they interviewed reported being held in solitary confinement for one to six months before turning 18. Twenty-one juveniles said that, while in confinement, they were denied visitations with family members, while an additional 16 recalled being isolated for days on end, without even reading materials provided to them.

The report offers several recommendations for federal and state legislation, including the total prohibition of solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 18. The authors additionally call for the cessation of holding juveniles in adult prisons, as well as advocating for the ratification of human rights treaties “protecting young people without reservations.”

“Solitary confinement, and many of the deprivations that are typically associated with it, has a distinct and particularly profound impact on young people, often doing serious damage to their development and psychological and physical well-being,” the report states. “Because of the special vulnerability and needs of adolescents, solitary confinement can be a particularly cruel and harmful practice when applied to them.”

New Report: Minors in ‘Solitary’ Hallucinate, Harm Themselves

Some minors locked up alone for all but a couple of hours to protect them from adults, other threats

Isolation cell at the Loysville Youth Development Center, Loysville, PA: Photo by Richard Ross

A new report on solitary confinement of minors includes harrowing descriptions of the psychological and physical impact ‘solitary’ has on young people, as well as surprising revelations about why some authorities resort to isolating juveniles.

In “Growing Up Locked Down,” the groups Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union report that a substantial number of detained juveniles minors are placed in solitary confinement as punishment, or as part of their rehabilitation plans – or even for their own protection. Some custodians, researchers found, say they put juveniles who are in adult lockups into solitary confinement as a way to protect them from attacks by adult inmates.

Some minors interviewed said they were segregated in juvenile facilities for the same reason – to protect them from threats – and let out only for a couple of hours a day.

Released in October, the report is based on research and interviews conducted in local and state detention facilities in Florida, Colorado, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. Investigators also corresponded with confined minors in 14 other states.

“Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow,” researchers said. Minors described experiencing hallucinations, cutting themselves with staples or razors and attempting suicide multiple times. Some said they were denied contact with loved ones while in ‘solitary,’ which increased their depression.

The report also says that a Pennsylvania prison official told researchers that many minors in solitary confinement are prescribed sleeping aids and other medications to help them “cope and reduce anxiety.”

A growing number of psychiatrists, juvenile-justice experts and custodians with direct control over juveniles are turning away from using solitary confinement for young people. The report cites various experts who recommend that segregation of youths to be as brief as possible and that custodians use of proven alternatives to control behavior.

“Prison and jail officials sometimes say it is necessary to separate an inmate, or groups of inmates, from others to ensure the security of staff and inmates in the general population,” according to the report. “When this happens, some state prison officials said that they have to use solitary confinement, as they are not equipped to manage individual or small groups of prisoners in any other way. But several prison officials often told Human Rights Watch that they would like to have the ability to manage youth differently.”

In July, the Center for Public Integrity published a report on how California prison guards and probation officers defeated  a state bill that would have required mental-health evaluations of minors every four hours if they are put into solitary confinement. The proposal would have applied to minors in state lockup as well as to those in local facilities, where most detained juveniles in California now reside. The guards, who are big campaign donors in California, and probation officers argued that the proposal was vague, would interfere with guards’ decisions and would cost counties money they didn’t have to hire more staff.

Other states have adopted standards in recent years restricting the use of solitary to control minors in detention, the Center report explained. In June, the U.S. Senate held the first-ever federal hearing on solitary confinement. Speakers described the adverse impact the practice had on inmates who were later released, and how the use of long-term segregation spread among state and federal facilities.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Story from The Center for Public Integrity.

Solitary for Youth: The Fight in Illinois

Isolation cell at the Fairbanks Youth Facility Fairbanks AK. Photo by Richard Ross

CHICAGO -- Even as national organizations rallied this week to end solitary confinement for incarcerated juveniles across the country, the local branch of American Civil Liberties Union is working with prison officials and the federal court to focus on the issue here.

The goal: settle a lawsuit on behalf of 2,217 incarcerated youth with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Corrections over the system’s inadequate services and often-hostile environment.

A preliminary agreement calls for curbing the growing practice of solitary confinement in youth centers, which activists say constitutes “torture,” given its potential for causing long-lasting psychological harm.

The proposed settlement, which is due for a fairness hearing in federal court in Chicago on December 6, would be the latest victory in a larger movement to end the punitive isolation of youth in custody. In June, Congress held its first hearing on the issue of solitary confinement within U.S. prisons, where roughly 80,000 inmates are in “restricted housing“ at any given time nationwide, according to a 2005 census of adult inmates by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Long a focus of the adult prison reform movement, advocates say the practice is even more damaging to emotionally developing juvenile offenders.

Solitary confinement should be reserved for violent offenses, such as fighting or attacking a guard, according to federal law. But investigations of Illinois’ juvenile facilities conducted by the Juvenile Justice Project at the John Howard Association found that youth were frequently isolated for non-violent offenses. Juvenile offenders have been separated for transgressions as minor as eating a guard’s food.

Prison staff often separate youth on the charge of “intimidation,” which John Howard Association of Illinois noted lacked any formal definition. According to the prison reform organization, youth in custody are subject to “a lottery of sorts,” in which their punishment often relies on the guard’s disposition.

ACLU settlement doesn’t call for outright abolishment of solitary confinement, but rather clarification of what constitutes an offense punishable by isolation. ACLU-Illinois Senior Counsel Adam Schwartz, for example, said there might arise rare instances where a juvenile is violent or physically out of control and in need of a short “time-out.”

Joshua Delaney of the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, said some prisons also place youth in solitary confinement when they first arrive as a hopeful deterrent for future misbehavior.

“At one facility, approximately 20 percent of youth were housed in isolation on any given day, and denied essential programming, services and recreation,” Delaney said during a recent online gathering of juvenile justice officials and advocates, hosted by the National Center for Youth in Custody.

“Part of the problem stemmed from the bizarre facility practice of routinely isolating incoming residents for a number of days,” he said, “reportedly for the purpose of determining whether each new youth would pose a threat to the facility.”

Activists also discovered that non-offending youth are sometimes placed in solitary confinement as a means to protect them from potential abuse or harassment at the hands of other inmates.

A 2011 visit to Illinois Youth Center St. Charles found that because of its inadequate infirmary, injured or sick youth were being housed in solitary confinement. After a Juvenile Justice Project report on the problem, the center now sends their sick youth to a nearby youth facility with adequate health care.

Other recent efforts may help curb the practice of “protective” isolation. It is common for facilities to house gay and transgender youth separately in order to prevent physical or verbal victimization by other juvenile inmates. But according to a recent study on LGBTQ youth in custody by the policy think tank Center for American Progress, the practice further marginalizes the potential victim.

“This isolation perpetuates the stigmatization of gay and transgender youth, casts them as sexually deviant, and signals that they might be of threat to other youth,” according to the report. Rules for complying with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, issued in late August, have outlawed this practice.

A 2006 Washington University report found that solitary confinement can lead to trauma, psychosis and aggression among youth. Half of all suicides that take place within juvenile detention centers happen within solitary confinement. Roughly 65 percent of young people who committed suicide had a history of separation.  ACLU and Human Rights Watch released a joint report documenting the frequent use of solitary confinement of juveniles Wednesday.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for a ban on solitary confinement of young people and inmates with mental illness in 2011. “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause…  it can amount to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment…  for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” he said in a statement before the U.N. General Assembly.

Advocates hope a combination of international human rights pressure and local legislation will force American detention centers to rethink isolation of young offenders.

“There’s movement both on the congressional level and on the state level,” said Baher Azmy, legal director for Center for Constitutional Rights.

The center has led several lawsuits against solitary confinement, most recently in Pelican Bay, Calif. Azmy said focusing on youth may motivate legislators to stand up and address the issue of isolation.

“The important thing is to use litigation in combination with organization, media and legislative advocacy” said Azmy.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Story from The Chicago Bureau

ACLU, Human Rights Watch Press for End to Juvenile Solitary Confinement

A solitary confinement cell at the Loysville Youth Development Center, Loysville, Pa. Photo by Richard Ross.

CHICAGO -- The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch published a stinging indictment Wednesday against the use of solitary confinement on minors – adding momentum to a lawsuit filed here last month claiming youth were locked in tiny, haunting cells for brushes as minor as speaking out of turn to a guard or disrupting a meal.

Wednesday’s 141-page report, which captured harrowing accounts from youngsters locked in solitary for up to months at a time, if not longer, called for an end to the practice, the exploration of remedial alternatives and changes to state and federal laws that currently allow for the practice.

Solitary -- according to the report’s interviews with prison officials and 125 minors from 19 states, including visits to facilities in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania -- can cause irreparable harm to a minor’s psychological makeup at the very time their minds are maturing. Just as troubling, according to the report and experts in the field, solitary can re-traumatize juveniles who have grown up with abusive and violent pasts.

“The hardest thing about isolation is that you are trapped in such a small room by yourself,” according to a March interview in the report with a Michigan inmate identified as Paul K. “There is nothing to do so you start talking to yourself and getting lost in your own little world. It is crushing. You get depressed and wonder if it is even worth living. Your thoughts turn over to the more death-oriented side of life … I want[ed] to kill myself.”

The punishment, researchers found, was practiced in juvenile facilities as well as on minors sentenced to adult jails and prisons.

Much of the report echoed the claims made in a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU-Illinoisagainst the state’s juvenile corrections department last month. At the time the suit was filed in federal court in Chicago in mid-September, the ACLU included a sort-of prescription for remedying the problem in Illinois facilities.

“Our position is solitary confinement is never appropriate for juveniles with the sole exceptions of maybe an hour or so for somebody who may be physically out of control, as part of a behavioral intervention, time-out program,” said ACLU-Illinois Senior Counsel Adam Schwartz. “But anything other than that is just completely inappropriate for children.

ACLU-Illinois filed suit and a companion proposal to remedy the problem in mid-September,

A solitary cell at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center, Biloxi, Miss. Photo by Richard Ross.

Schwartz said. The suit and the proposal focuses on five areas of concern, among them solitary confinement for inmates ages 13 to 20.

The federal judge in the case signed off on a preliminary agreement, but a fairness hearing to actually kick in a period of monitoring and investigating isn’t scheduled until December 6 – “and hopefully that will end solitary confinement in Illinois,” Schwartz said.

“Solitary breaks the spirit and injures the mental health of adults,” he said. “Children, of course, are more vulnerable,” as their minds experience time more slowly, the chemical wiring of their brains is still ongoing and the punishment comes at the very time these minors need the sort of human interaction that will lead to more social and productive experiences.

“When you throw someone in solitary confinement, it re-traumatizes them, it’s a very upsetting experience, and it’s not just the confinement itself,” Schwartz said. “The place is filthy, it is small, it’s dark, it smells, there are bugs. And it’s not just for a violent offense. There’s kids who ate off someone else’s plate, or they were mouthy with a guard or they refused to step out of their cell at the breakfast call in the morning. We think there’s too much use, the conditions are horrible and really, the only solution is to just get rid of solitary confinement in juvenile prisons.”

The national report notes that in New York’s storied Rikers Island, the average stay of juveniles in solitary confinement was 43 days at a facility where nearly half of all adolescents have been diagnosed with some sort of mental illness. Overall in New York during the last fiscal year, which ended in June, almost 15 percent of the state system’s inmates under the age of 18 had spent time in solitary.

In a statement, Ian Kysel, a Aryeh Neier Fellow with Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and the report’s author, said: “No one believes that locking a teenager in a closet is an effective way to improve either their behavior or their character, much less to protect them long term… Young people have rights and needs that are different from adults; jail and prison practices should reflect those differences and promote their ability to grow and change – we should invest in youth, not banish them.”

Photo by Richard Ross. Story from The Chicago Bureau

Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Kids in Solitary Confinement

When most Americans hear the constitutional phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” they can tell you what it means. Hanging. Flogging. Chain gangs.

But high on my list of “cruel and unusual punishment” is sentencing juvenile offenders to solitary confinement.

What else could you call locking up fifteen and sixteen year olds, some even younger, in total isolation for 24 hours a day, in some cases for months at a time, never letting them leave their cells?

“All an inmate’s needs are met right here,” was the way the warden of the county penitentiary in New York state where I taught high school proudly described it as he gave a group of professionals a tour of the new Special Housing Unit (SHU).  Each cell had its own phone, shower, toilet, concrete bed, and adjacent small-enclosed recreation area. Yes, all the needs were there except for the most essential: human contact.

These conditions, which are replicated nationally in our jails, are intolerable. The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that the United States has more inmates in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation.

Locking up a kid in those conditions, a kid with more energy than a playground can hold, whose body vibrates with urges that many more advantaged teens struggle to control and whose emotional and intellectual development is at best undernourished, can only be called “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Human Rights Watch agrees. Its recently released report-- “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life Without Parole in the United States”-- documents the overuse of juvenile solitary confinement and its devastating impact, often heightened, by the prospect of life without parole. The young people interviewed considered isolation a “profoundly difficult ordeal,” leaving them with “thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness or depression.”

But it’s not just “lifers” in solitary who experience this “profound difficult ordeal.” I saw it when I visited my jailhouse students who were locked up in “the cage,” as they called it. They were there because prison officials deemed them a threat to “safety and security.” In too many cases, however, that “threat” came from their acting-out behaviors due to untreated mental health issues or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Still others were seen as “pains in the ass” who “just needed to be taught a lesson.”

It didn’t take long for the new SHU to fall apart, the way everything does in jail. Walls were soon scuffed and gouged from inmates being dragged in; cell door windows were smeared as guys jammed and angled their faces to see anything, anyone. The only thing shattering that intense sensory deprivation was the sound of inmates shouting to each other, howling through the thick walls, trying to connect with another human, announcing to the world, “I’m still alive.” And when they weren’t screaming, they were sleeping—15 to 16 hours a day.

My students deteriorated as well. In solitary, they abandoned any sense of civilized behavior. Young guys once clean-shaven and showered, smelling of Old Spice deodorant now reeked of unwashed bodies; their hair was dirty and matted, faces fuzzed; their eyes caked and puffy from sleep. I would bang on the window until they awoke and lifted their heads from under the pillows and blankets they burrowed under against the cold. They’d shuffle over to the door and we’d squat on our own side of the concrete and glass wall and talk through the meal tray slot. It was then that I’d be hit by the smell of their sour, foul breath as though they were slowly decaying from the inside out.

Finally in 2009 the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated these abuses. The DOJ reported that half of the inmates in the SHU were between 16 and 18, and the average stay in isolation was 365 days. As a result of these “extremely lengthy sentences,” their mental health worsened significantly, aggravated “by the jail’s failure” to provide routine treatment. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case. Abuses of minors in solitary are happening around the country.

The irony of their predicament was not lost on my students. We lock children up in inhumane conditions in order to teach them how to act humane. Unfortunately, as studies have shown, inmates learn a much different lesson. When they leave isolation they are angrier, more distrustful, more cynical about our justice system, and more prone to violence.

What could be a more “cruel and unusual punishment” then to confirm to these young people their bedrock belief that America, as it now is, has no place for them other than behind bars?

David Chura, author of I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, has worked with at-risk teenagers for 40 years.

Life Without Parole for Juveniles: A Brief Look at the Issues

Tuesday the Supreme Court will take up the issue of life sentences without parole (LWOP) for juveniles convicted of murder. In 2010, the nation’s high court ruled juvenile LWOP sentences were unconstitutional in non-homicide crimes. Now, advocates are hopeful the court will extend the same protection to all juveniles, regardless of the offense.

Pointing to research indicating that brains continue to develop into the early 20s, some groups, including the American Bar Association, argue juveniles are uniquely suited to rehabilitation and that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is a violation of the Eighth and 14th Amendments’ prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments.

Juvenile LWOP sentences are, in fact, very rare, especially for 14-year-olds, the age of both juveniles sentenced in the two cases before the court. Jennifer Jenkins, President of the National Organization for Victims of Juvenile Lifers, a group advocating on behalf of crime victims and their families, describes the cases as 'outliers' and says that's precisely why the justices should uphold the constitutionality of juvenile LWOP sentences. NOVJL submitted an amicus brief to the court reflecting that position.

"...[T]hese cases currently before the Supreme Court represent efforts by advocates for the offenders to go after the 'outliers' in this issue," Jenkins wrote in a statement to JJIE. "Ninety percent of all cases of juveniles tried and sentenced to natural life as adults for their exceptionally heinous crimes are 16 and 17-years-old."

But Randee Waldman, director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory University School of Law, in Atlanta believes the sentence is cruel and unusual because of how rarely it is applied.

“There are very few 13 or 14-year-olds serving life without parole,” she said. “It’s disproportionately used. That’s why it is unusual.”

Human rights watchdogs are taking an international view of the issue because the United States is one of only two countries in the world, along with Somalia, that has not signed the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child that prohibits juvenile LWOP.

“At the most basic level the sentence of LWOP for those convicted under 18 years old… is clearly in violation of international law,” Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate for Human Rights Watch and LWOP Coordinator, told JJIE in July 2011. “I think we’re at a point in time where the community doesn’t think over-incarceration is the way to go.”

Amnesty International USA is also seeking a ruling from the court striking down juvenile LWOP sentences. As part of their awareness campaign the group produced an infographic highlighting some of the demographics of juvenile LWOP sentencing.

Courtesy Amnesty International USA.