ALBANY, New York — At the midpoint of the 180-mile March for Justice, its organizer, Soffiyah Elijah, was overwhelmed. She was simultaneously trying to find the proper turn on a back road in a Hudson Valley town, coordinate with the caretaker of a 105-year-old woman who wanted to join the march and figure out where to find a laundromat that would stay open late.
She slumped in her seat on the repurposed school bus and wearily placed her face into her hands.
“I need a nap,” she said.
At that point Albany seemed more like 900 miles away than 90, but Wednesday Soffiyah Elijah wore footwear that wasn’t sneakers for the first time in 18 days. She pointed to her brown-and-tan strap sandals inside LaZeez, the Indian restaurant where she was planning the rally for later that evening and cracked a joke.
“It feels good to be in something other than sneakers,” she said, flashing a brilliant smile.
She had launched the March for Justice on Aug. 26 in Harlem in Manhattan. And after walking through numerous counties, towns, villages and cities, they had finally made it.
Elijah, the executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice, conceived of the march as a way to employ traditional 20th-century civil rights tactics to draw attention to what she considers an urgent 21st-century civil rights catastrophe in New York: the abuse of prisoners in the state’s juvenile adult facilities and the broken criminal justice system that puts them there. The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other country on Earth. In New York, often heralded as a beacon of progressivism, 80 percent of its prison population is black or Hispanic.
Elijah’s organization is dedicated to ending abuses behind the walls of New York state prisons and helping families of prisoners on the other side. It fights for a number of issues — from voter registration to meaningful raise-the-age reforms, as well as supporting the families with loved ones behind bars.
New York’s prisons are almost exclusively upstate, away from New York City, often in bucolic surroundings near charming hamlets and villages. Elijah strategically selected a route that would take the march past as many prisons as possible en route to Albany, the heart of political power in the state.
At 5 p.m. the march culminated in a rally in West Capitol Park, in the center of vast, imposing state government buildings. Behind the stage was the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, its granite facade etched with the names of many of the counties the marchers crossed: Westchester, Dutchess, Ulster, Green.
Elijah opened the rally by launching into her favorite chant, one she recited dozens of times. It begins: “Everywhere we go, people want to know who we are, where we come from, where we’re going, so we tell them, we are a family …” She did her trademark crouch and shimmy and then ran into the crowd like the front man of a rock band and kept leading the chant. She approached Miss Ivey, the oldest of the marchers who made it all the way from Harlem, and held her signature red megaphone to Miss Ivey’s mouth so she could lead the chant.
Across the lawn of the park sat the New York Capitol Building, on either side the monumental Legislative and state Educational buildings. The emcee, Alliance member Carol Harriott, kept the mood light as well, making jokes and moving the evening along with an upbeat, conversational tone. She teased Elijah at one point and had the crowd laughing.
Many of the 200 people who gathered for the rally wore T-shirts or held handmade posters advocating for the cause they think is in most need of reform. Some support ending solitary confinement for youth, others for improved reentry services.
Whatever the cause, all the attendees were in agreement with the march’s aim — to bring as much attention as possible to what they see as a civil rights catastrophe in New York’s criminal justice system. One recurring theme for speakers was the need to convert the energy created by the march into tangible policy successes.
Again and again, speakers encouraged attendees to reach out to politicians and policymakers at every level of government. As the sun set, in a theatrical gesture Elijah showed how she was going to tell Andrew, referring to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. She raised her megaphone to her mouth and led a chant about bringing an end to the prison state. Her voice was rugged and raw after 18 days of chants, but it could be heard clearly as it bounced off the walls of the Capitol building.
Throughout the evening speakers talked about the list of demands. Chief among them was closing down the Attica Correctional Facility, which Elijah called New York’s Abu Ghraib. She had timed the march with the anniversary of what some call a riot and others call a rebellion and an uprising, when Attica prisoners took corrections officers hostage to draw attention to abuses happening inside the prison.
“If you consider yourself a person of conscience,” Elijah said. “Then you should never be able to rest at night until you’ve done everything in your power to help bring an end to the suffering going on in prisons and jails going on right in New York and across the country.”
Throughout the two-hour rally speakers came to tell their stories and give intimate, human examples of what they meant when they used the clunky phrase “prison industrial complex.”
Alicia Barraza, a veteran of the political battle to raise the age of treating juveniles as adults during the last state legislative session, recounted the story of her son, Ben Van Zandt. She talked about how as a result of a severe mental illness he committed a crime, arson, when he was 17. He was charged as an adult and placed in series of adult prisons where he endured beatings, rapes and frequent harassment due to his illness. Eventually, he ended up in Fishkill Correctional Facility. It’s a prison in Beacon, New York, where Elijah and her marchers had a confrontation with an administrator who accused them of riling up the inmates.
While he was in Fishkill, Baraza was repeatedly placed in solitary confinement. Eventually, he killed himself. He was 21.
“He just couldn’t take it anymore,” Barraza said.
When she explained that her son committed suicide, the crowd gasped. She cautioned the crowd to be vigilant. Despite the Empire State passing a law to raise the age, district attorneys still have vast power to steer teenagers into the adult system.
“People should be paying attention,” she said.
Some marchers reunited for the first time since meeting on the road. Friends, associates and fellow activists chatted amiably between speakers. But after Barraza spoke, the mood took a jarring turn.
For most of the evening the mood had been light and jovial, despite the seriousness of the event. Harriott took back the microphone. For most of the evening she had been upbeat. She suddenly appeared shaken, overcome with sorrow.
She made a few halting attempts to encourage people to be active, her voice starting to crack.
“I’ve run out of words,” she said.
She stepped away from the microphone, slid her fingers beneath her glasses and wiped away tears. Elijah came up from the crowd, where she had been glad-handing and hugging well-wishers, to meet her. She hugged Harriot, who was now sobbing.
Other marchers noticed Harriot, who, like them, had made some part of the 180-mile journey from Harlem to the shadow of the statehouse in Albany. They took a few more steps to join in consoling her.
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Meranda Davis knows her daughter hasn’t always been an angel. Auto theft, assaults, wild tantrums in court left a judge little choice but to send the 15-year-old to Copper Lake School for Girls, one of Wisconsin’s two juvenile detention facilities.
“If you choose to steal cars, you deserve to wind up in a juvenile jail. I know that,” Davis said Monday. “But nobody deserves to be treated the way they treat people in there.”
That treatment, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week, includes indiscriminately dousing entire wings of youth facilities with pepper spray designed to deter bears and locking teens in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours per day. The allegations are the latest against the facilities, which have already attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice and local child care advocates.
“If I locked my son in his room for a day, a week or a month, it would be called child abuse. If I chained him to a table, if I sprayed him with pepper spray it would be called child abuse,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, which filed the lawsuit along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. “When children are entrusted to the state’s care, the standard should be just as high.”
Many of the abuses outlined in the lawsuit have been well chronicled in the state’s media and legislative bodies. But efforts to improve the facilities have been slow or nonexistent, prompting the legal action, said Laurence Dupuis, attorney for the ACLU of Wisconsin, at a press conference today.
The crux of the lawsuit focuses on what lawyers called the state’s excessive use of solitary confinement to punish children for even minor offenses. The practice runs counter to nationwide trends against isolating youth, and ignores recommendations from the American Medical Association and medical studies showing the corrosive and dangerous effects it has on teenagers.
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John Paquin, administrator of Wisconsin’s Division of Juvenile Corrections, did not respond to a voice message left on his office phone.
The solitary cells at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys are known as “cottages” in the prison, but Dupuis and the lawsuit describe them as anything but. The 7-foot by 10-foot cells contain only a bed and toilet. No desks, no pencil or pads for schoolwork, not even a chair.
Teenagers are sentenced to as long as 30 to 60 days in solitary confinement, even though state rules call for a maximum of four days. As many as 20 percent of the youths at the boys’ and girls’ facilities are locked in solitary at any one time, Dupuis said.
“When we started to visit some of the youths [at the two facilities] in October we were shocked by what we heard and what we actually witnessed ourselves,” Dupuis said. “We witnessed a group of guards at the far end of the hallway holding a youth they had pepper sprayed on the ground, then dragging him limping, blinking because of the pepper spray in his eyes to a shower room not far from where we were sitting.”
The boys are locked to shower cages and are routinely pepper sprayed. There were 200 incidents of pepper spraying in the first 10 months of 2016, according to state records.
“Usually when the ACLU shows up, people start changing their habits and things get a bit better. We saw none of that here,” Dupuis said.
Meranda Davis, whose daughter is incarcerated at the Copper Lakes facility until at least March, described phone calls from her frantic teen.
“She call me crying after getting out of solitary. They send kids for two weeks just for talking back in class,” Davis said. “One time, they were punishing a girl in solitary, so they just fired a whole can of pepper spray into the unit. Everyone was coughing and crying. My daughter was coughing up blood.”
A 2015 Justice Department study found that solitary confinement, also known as restrictive housing, “when applied without regard to basic standards of decency, can cause serious, long-lasting harm.”
The DOJ banned solitary for all juveniles in the federal prison system and vowed to crack down on states that abuse the practice, according to the 2015 report.
The civil rights division began looking at the two Wisconsin facilities in 2015. While the investigations are still ongoing, nobody at today’s press conference is holding out much hope for quick action.
“If I had any reason to believe that action was imminent, we may have held off,” Dupuis said. But the situation he witnessed, and the stories he and his team heard from inmates, made the lawsuit necessary.
“The way we, the state of Wisconsin, are treating these children is not just illegal, not just wrong, it’s immoral. It inflicts terrible damage on the youths, it inflicts terrible damage on the guards and it inflicts terrible damage on our society,” he said.
In just the last month or so, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) joined a growing list of national organizations calling for an end to the solitary confinement of young people in this country. The AAP endorsed the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign’s position statement.
And a new resolution from NCJFCJ calls for an end to solitary confinement as defined by Stop Solitary for Kids: “the involuntary placement of a youth alone in a cell, room, or other area for any reason other than as a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate harm to the youth or others.”
We commend NCJFCJ and AAP for recognizing the critical role played by judges and medical staff in ensuring the well-being of youth in facilities and urging their colleagues to take a leadership position on this issue. Support to end solitary for kids from organizations representing juvenile court judges and pediatricians across the country shows the momentum building to end this harmful practice.
It has been 10 months since President Obama described solitary confinement as “an affront to our common humanity” and banned its use for youth in federal custody. Within those months, we’ve launched the Stop Solitary for Kids national campaign to end solitary confinement of youth. Organizations including the American Correctional Association have called for action to reduce solitary confinement for youth. Nebraska, California and Colorado have adopted legislation to limit solitary. The movement has found support from increasingly diverse states and organizations.
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The goal is to end a practice that harms young people and makes facilities less safe, for youth and the staff who work in them. Juvenile justice agencies in Ohio, Indiana, Massachusetts and Oregon have nearly achieved this goal, greatly reducing solitary confinement while simultaneously reducing violence within their facilities. Those agencies have shown that ending solitary confinement yields benefits for young people and the staff charged with caring for them.
Today, the question isn’t “Can we stop solitary for kids?” The question is how soon we will do it. Despite significant developments in the field, there is still a long way to go to end solitary confinement for all youth. Advocates — especially those involved in justice reform — often face the frustrating reality that change comes slowly. Meanwhile, thousands of youth continue to be placed in solitary confinement every year. The urgency is tangible.
NCFCJ’s resolution is an important example of stakeholders within the justice system taking a stand against a dangerous, ineffective and counterproductive practice. However, there are many more who have yet to join the cause. We encourage leaders across all fields to join the movement today and help us achieve a world where we Stop Solitary for Kids.
Mark Soler is the executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington, District of Columbia.
Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. He formerly served as general counsel, chief of staff and interim director for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, District of Columbia.
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California takes a historic step forward this month as it moves to enact restrictions on the use of solitary confinement in state and local facilities for youth — curbing a manifest violation of human rights and protecting its youth from the trauma of isolated confinement. With the passage of Senate Bill 1143, California will join the federal prison system and several other U.S. states in limiting solitary confinement for youth under 18.
If signed into law, California’s reform would impact thousands of young people held in dozens of facilities across the state, where youth solitary confinement has long served as an instrument of punishment and control. In California’s Division of Juvenile Justice, for example, youth are confined to their cells for months on end with severely restricted out-of-room time. Young people in these units spend a majority of the day forbidden from moving freely or interacting with other youth, and limited in their access to visitation, programming or personal items. In one 2012 incident, youth were “locked-down” for nearly a month, during which time they were confined in isolation for nearly 24 hours per day and spent several days with only their underwear and a blanket.
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Extended periods of isolation can be devastating, particularly for young people and for those who have experienced previous trauma. Nationwide, most youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system have already been subjected to abuse and violence. Childhood trauma produces a persistent and heightened state of anxiety, which increases a young person’s chances of problematic substance use, physical or mental health issues or contact with the justice system. Rather than nurture and rehabilitate, the juvenile justice system can expose those most vulnerable to additional trauma. For many young people, the very experience of a locked facility reinforces existing psychological distress.
Solitary confinement furthers this trauma and profoundly impacts mental well-being. Placing youth in isolation, whether to punish or protect, blunts the effectiveness of treatment and undermines efforts to make youth whole. Individuals who are isolated and deprived of sensory stimulation, with limitations on full and free movement, are at increased risk of anxiety, depression, psychosis, self-harm and suicide. And these perils disproportionately impact youth of color and LGBTQ youth.
Correctional institutions justify the use of youth solitary confinement by citing concerns over youth or staff safety, but solitary confinement itself engenders violence. Foregoing the practice in favor of institutional reforms, such as smaller living units, improved staff training, reduced overcrowding and expanded access to trauma-informed mental health services, can make facilities safer for staff and young people alike.
The experts are unequivocal: solitary confinement is damaging and inhumane. The United Nations, the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) have each declared their firm opposition to youth solitary confinement, and the AACAP make clear that “seclusion should only be used for the least amount of time possible for the immediate physical protection of an individual, in situations where less restrictive interventions have proven ineffective.”
Despite widespread consensus on the futility and cruelty of youth solitary confinement, states across the U.S. have been slow to adopt restrictions on its use. Currently, 29 states still permit the use of solitary confinement as a form of punishment for youth, and many rely on it as a routine tool of convenience, using it to separate youth under 18 from the general population of an adult prison or jail.
To safeguard youth, states must enact reforms similar to those in place in the federal prison system, Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma, West Virginia or Texas that strictly limit periods of confinement and mandate reporting on instances of prolonged isolation. Moreover, states that prosecute youth as adults must end the incarceration of youth in adult facilities in order to stop the default placement of young people in isolation.
Youth solitary confinement fails to keep youth or staff safe and inflicts lasting harm on those most in need of support. California’s pending reform serves as an example and a reminder — systems-impacted young people deserve humane treatment that fosters rehabilitation and long-term well-being.
Maureen Washburn is a member of the Policy and Communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
"Before, I perceived solitary confinement as just another cruel sanction of the government. After just 24 hours, I testify that solitary confinement is hell on earth. Solitary confinement is legalized torture," says Anyssa Williams, a Georgia State University student who spent 24 hours in an 8 by 8 cell replica for a school assignment.
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion Tuesday that bans the use of solitary confinement — in all but the most exceptional circumstances — in all the county’s juvenile detention facilities.
Solitary confinement “doesn’t improve behavior,” said Board Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. “It doesn’t promote rehabilitation. … And [nationally] 50 percent of our young people who commit suicide were in room confinement at the time of their suicide.”
Los Angeles County oversees the largest juvenile justice system in the nation, housing approximately 1,200 youth. This decision could potentially have a contagious effect on other counties and their juvenile justice systems, in California and beyond, observers say. The change is to be made by the end of September.
Last year, a similar bill for the entire state was killed in committee. A revamped version has been reintroduced by state Sen. Mark Leno again this year.
Two juvenile camps of LA’s 13 and one of three juvenile halls will do away with solitary by the end of May. Those three facilities will serve as models for the rest of system, said interim Probation Chief Cal Remington.
Remington cautioned that kids “may be separated as a short-term response when their behavior poses a serious risk to themselves and others.”
He also said the environments in which a young person might be placed for such a cool down would be very different than the current cell-like rooms. “We want the situation to be a calming experience,” he said, listing changes in furniture, lighting, window treatment and wall colors. ... We’re talking about cultural change.”
Staff training will be very important, he said: “The staff have to feel safe.”
A panel of experts spoke about the motion at the hearing before the vote.
“Study after study has shown that solitary confinement can have devastating mental-health effects on adults,” said juvenile advocate Kirn Kim, who as a teenager spent 15 months in solitary, from 16 to 18. “So I ask, how can its use ever be justified for juveniles? The teenage brain is still developing. Youth have a lesser capacity to cope with stress than adults. To force that level of stress on a young person, especially those who have already been traumatized, only leads to further problems ... As any parent can attest, children act out. These kids have been traumatized, they are put in solitary confinement, and they act out further.”
Attorney Jo Kaplan, who is a member of the Probation Commission and a longtime child advocate, made clear that getting rid of juvenile solitary was overdue. “For close to two decades we’ve had the Department of Justice monitoring probation,” she said. “This solitary confinement motion is symbolic of [a department] that, in the past, was stuck on stupid.”
Several young people in the audience talked about their own experiences in solitary. “It was horrible,” said Francisco Martinez, who was from the Youth Justice Coalition. “An animal in a cage.”
This story originally appeared on WitnessLA.
It’s easier than ever before to experience a small taste of what’s it like to be kept in solitary confinement.
The Guardian created its own virtual reality app so that viewers could see and hear a 6-foot by 9-foot cell. Readers can also listen to seven ex-inmates describe their experience and hear a 24-minute audio documentary.
Online magazine takepart has a video of a former inmate discussing his time in solitary and the greater challenges the LGBTQ community has in prison. There is also an article on some prison guards who are supporting less solitary confinement and another on the religion that helped create solitary but is now working for criminal justice reform.
We explored the solitary confinement exhibit that Georgia State University students built in Atlanta and filmed the reactions of other students.
(Part 2 of 2)
I arrived at the Anamosa Iowa Men’s Reformatory in October 1992. I can still remember riding in the van, wearing a set of cold steel shackles and handcuffs attached to a long dog chain that went around my waist and attached to a black box. The black box was padlocked around the cuffs, immobilizing my hands. I had heard rumors that a prisoner actually invented this black box contraption and I cursed him silently as we took a 2½-hour trip, which seemed more like it took all day.
Immobilized in cold, noisy chains, I silently looked out the window of the county van, watching cornfield after cornfield pass by. An ex-convict, who had been to prison several times and was on his way back with me, excitedly explained the ropes to me and told me I needed to be ready because I would be going to “gladiator school.” His ramblings were soon drowned out by my own thoughts about how I would survive. Gladiator school was a term used to describe how prisoners were ready to fight at a moment’s notice.
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We eventually pulled up to a facility with 30-foot-high limestone walls and guard towers, all held together by reinforced steel bars. We passed through the prison gates and were directed to get out of the van, so we shuffled our way off. Prisoners, young and old, watched us with eager, suspicious, angry and hopeful eyes. The stares were piercing and I stared back, refusing to flinch, silently stating that I, too, could be a gladiator if need be.
As I scanned the crowd of prisoners, I immediately recognized several faces, but was quick to keep scanning and let them come to me, rather than show the relief I felt from knowing someone from the neighborhood. Before this moment I’d heard the stories, watched the movies and knew that I needed to not laugh, smile or appear soft. It was a lot to remember for a 17-year-old, but I was determined to survive by any means necessary.
I was placed into the orientation cell house and immediately hooked up with associates from my neighborhood. With my defiant attitude, the old friends and finding ways to make myself comfortable, it was only a matter of time before the long, dark hand of solitary confinement would reach out and find me, reminding me of how she likes to torment me. I thought I had experienced the worst of solitary confinement at the Iowa State Training School, but I had a lot to learn.
Within my first month, I was approached by two correctional officers for breaking several rules. True to my identity as inmate Wallace #1039260, I immediately became disruptive, belligerent and combative, which resulted in several additional correctional officers being called to assist in forcibly carrying me up some stairs, around a corner and to a cold dark closet they called a cell.
Once in there, I had a Taser shoved in my face as they showed me the electricity that flowed between the points and gleefully told me they would Taser me if I moved. They cut all my clothing from my body and then slowly backed out of the cell, laughing as they left me naked on a cold concrete slab with my hands still cuffed behind my back. They returned some time later with the Taser still in hand and threatened, again, to use it if I moved the wrong way. They removed the handcuffs and left me with a pair of jeans that had Velcro instead of zipper and a T-shirt. Again, they slowly backed out of the cold dark cell and appeared to hope that I would move so they could use the Taser. I didn’t give them the pleasure.
I was left there for approximately three days with no books, no shower and no human contact, with the exception of the guards. They would bring me food and insinuate that they had spit in it, so I didn’t eat much. I counted every crack, brick and imperfection in the walls a few hundred times a day.
The silence was deafening and the monotony and lack of stimulation was unlike anything my young 17-year-old brain/body had experienced. It was much worse than the solitary confinement I had experienced at the State Training School, because here they didn’t even have to pretend they cared and instead treated us like cattle being sent off to slaughter.
I was eventually taken to the actual “hole,” which had two sides: the “dark” side and the “light” side. Of course, prisoners wanted to go to the light side — it sounded like the better deal. However, I soon found the only difference between the two sides was that on the dark side, prisoners had control over whether the lights in their cell were on or off, while on the light side, the lights were always on.
Leaving the lights on 24/7 was one of the many ways that prison administrators placed value on the most insignificant items and kept prisoners from focusing on true habilitation. I specifically use the word “habilitation” because when you look at the pre-incarceration lives of these prisoners, you can see it would be virtually impossible to “rehabilitate” someone who had not had the opportunity to develop the habits of a socially responsible individual before they were incarcerated. These practices still exist today and I must assert that these rituals tend to help institutionalize prisoners and do nothing to discourage the recidivism we see in prison statistics.
I was kept in the hole for approximately 30 days that first time and was told I would be transferred to Administrative Segregation for 180 days. This is often referred to as “AD Seg.” The cell is just like the hole, except you have a roommate and are allowed a few more items of property. You are still segregated from the general prison population and are forced to always be handcuffed, and sometimes shackled, when outside your cell.
Exercise space was provided in a large dog kennel that had barbed wire on top. This is where the many “gladiator fights” would take place, repeatedly, as human beings would release years of frustration and pain in a combat of blood and sweat, until the correctional officers would spray tear gas from a canister that looked like a fire extinguisher, coating our lungs and filling our eyes.
In 1992, at the Iowa Men’s Reformatory, Administrative Segregation took place on the third floor — the “Mountain.” While in the hole, I heard stories about what to expect when I got there for my 180 days. I began to get my mind ready for the violence and my new roommate. He was 22 years old and we were able to talk about everything, until there was nothing to talk about and then we talked about everything again.
I engaged in my own gladiator fights and had countless battles with the guards, as I sat in this cell for 23 hours a day and felt the walls close in day after day. I continued to battle and fight until I had extended my Administrative Segregation time far beyond the original 180 days and made countless trips to the hole. I had sunk into a state of madness and paranoia and was eventually made into a bitter, angry, violent, aggressive, impulsive 17-year-old, who thrived on the stimulation of any conflict.
Two weeks before my 18th birthday, I was awakened by the guards and told to eat breakfast at about 4 a.m. I immediately woke my cellmate and told anyone within the sound of my voice that I was being taken somewhere and to write my family and let them know. They eventually came to my cell and gave me a white jumpsuit, putting me through the degrading routine of a strip search with all the shackles, handcuffs, waist chain and that hated black box around my cuffs.
It was then that I learned I would be transferring to the Iowa State Penitentiary. I may have been an adult on paper, but in reality, I was still a scared kid. Still, I put on the thousand-yard glare and moved forward. I was worried because the state penitentiary was where Iowa’s most dangerous criminals were placed. Most prisoners were serving sentences so long they would never get out. I braced myself for the next stage of my life, which, at that moment, felt more like death.
I spent a total of four years in solitary confinement during my incarceration and didn’t learn anything from it, except that this methodology is a huge factor in why many convicts leave prison only to return months later, because they were ill-equipped to cope with societal norms.
They didn’t learn the habits of socially responsible individuals. They didn’t develop the social and emotional skills that would help them navigate the real world. They didn’t get an education that could lead them to employment and away from criminal activities. Solitary confinement is not a solution to behavioral issues. It is a reinforcement of them.
Jeff Wallace has spent most of his life studying the effects of the policy and procedures followed by the criminal justice system on at-risk youth — first as one of those youths and then through his undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminal justice. He is founder and president of STEPQuadCities.org. His email firstname.lastname@example.org. See his Tedx talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOxpjjzP6lM
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WASHINGTON — The federal government wants to help states eliminate the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention plans to host a meeting for states to consider how to move away from putting youth in isolation.
“Our goal is to eliminate the practice,” said Robert Listenbee, OJJDP administrator, during a speech at the annual Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference Friday.
Earlier this year, President Obama announced solitary confinement no longer would be used for juveniles in federal custody, a move supporters hoped would encourage action in the states, where most juveniles are held.
More broadly, Listenbee applauded reforms across the country that are moving from a juvenile justice model that emphasizes punishment to one focused on improving outcomes for juveniles.
“They should leave the system better than they were when they came,” he said.
Researchers have found solitary confinement can cause depression, anxiety and psychosis and that youth are particularly vulnerable because they are still developing. More than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities occurred while young people were held in isolation.
In a separate session on the use of solitary confinement, experts discussed the nuances of ending solitary.
Kim Godfrey, executive director at the PbS Learning Institute, said it would be helpful to have data that show why youth are being sent to solitary confinement, such as for punishment or because there is insufficient staffing. Each of those reasons will require different interventions.
Another consideration should be how the use of solitary confinement affects juveniles who are not placed in isolation but see their peers being subjected to it, said Jennifer Woolard, associate professor and co-director of the graduate program in developmental science at Georgetown University.
Listening to youth
Across the conference’s sessions, speakers emphasized the importance of listening to youth’s voices, whether a judge is trying to figure out how to help a teenager or formerly incarcerated youth are making the case for reforms to lawmakers.
Starcia Ague, an administrator in Washington state’s Juvenile Justice Rehabilitation Administration who spent time in the justice system as a teenager, said advocates and policymakers should be sure youth are given a real voice, not just used to make a point.
“I want to have a seat at the table — really have a seat at the table,” she said.
Ramon Leija, a coordinator at Eastern Coachella Valley Boys and Men of Color in California, who has also experienced the system, urged advocates and others to allow themselves to be vulnerable when they’re working with youth if they hope to connect with them.
“Young people can tell who’s real,” he said.
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WASHINGTON — A campaign to end solitary confinement for juveniles launched today, with supporters pledging to build on the momentum of leading-edge jurisdictions that have banned the practice.
The Stop Solitary for Kids campaign will offer technical assistance, training, public education, and model policy and legislation at the local, state and federal levels, all aimed at ending the use of solitary confinement for juveniles.
“We want to reach a tipping point where there is so much momentum that it becomes the professional standard,” said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy.
Researchers have found solitary confinement can cause depression, anxiety and psychosis; children and teenagers are especially at risk because they are still developing. More than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities occurred while young people were held in isolation.
The growing concern about the effects of solitary has spurred action to end the use of solitary among states, including Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, Oregon and Mississippi, as well as at the federal level.
The campaign — a partnership between CCLP, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and the Justice Policy Institute — will highlight existing strategies to end solitary developed by groups such as the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
“This is doable. This is not pie in the sky,” Soler said.
The groups involved in the campaign said juveniles should only be confined to their room when they pose an immediate threat to themselves or others, and then only temporarily until they can return to regular programming.
In 2012, 44 percent of detention centers reported they had locked youth in a room for more than four hours in the past month, according to an analysis of federal data by the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
State administrators who have successfully ended the use of solitary confinement said support from correctional officers is key to changing policies because they need to feel they can safely diffuse situations.
Building that support requires sharing data about the use of solitary and how it is affecting juveniles, offering training and providing alternatives for officers to use to correct misbehavior, said Christine Blessinger, director of the division of youth services at the Indiana Department of Corrections.
“If you don’t have the alternatives, you’ll never get the staff buy-in because they’ll say, ‘What else are we going to do?’” she said.
Linda Janes, assistant director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services, said the state has seen an 89 percent reduction in the use of seclusion since officials decided to shift policies two years ago. At the same time, violence has decreased by 22 percent.
“Not only is it possible, but I would say it’s imperative for everyone in the juvenile justice arena. We’ve seen fantastic results,” she said.
The federal government also has taken action on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles.
President Obama announced in January that the federal government would not place juveniles in isolation. While fewer than 100 juveniles were in federal custody at the time of the announcement, reformers hailed the decision as a potential springboard for action in counties and states, where most juveniles are held.
Robert Listenbee, administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the Department of Justice, said his office encourages states to follow the department’s position on solitary confinement and supports states’ efforts to develop alternatives.
“We know that too often solitary confinement is used to punish a child, to avoid behavioral or mental health issues,” he said.
In addition, Roy Austin, deputy assistant to the president for the Office of Urban Affairs, Justice and Opportunity, said the federal move to end the use of isolation was “just the start.” Policymakers also should be paying attention to school discipline, raising the age of juvenile jurisdiction and better services inside facilities.
“At every step we have to do better by our kids. We have to start by getting them out of the system in the first place,” he said.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, who has pushed to include restrictions on solitary confinement for juveniles in criminal justice reform legislation, said the federal order was critical but noted a future president could reverse it. Federal lawmakers also should take action to point the ways for states and ensure the policy continues.
“We here in Washington should be able to do something that is permanent and reflective of our values,” he said.
A proposed reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act, S. 1169, would require states to gather data on how isolation is used, and how frequently, and to promote methods for minimizing isolation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation last July, but it stalled on the Senate floor in February when Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, objected to a provision that would limit judges’ ability to send juveniles to lockup for status offenses.
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