SundayReview | Editorial
Pulling Back on the Barbaric Use of Solitary Confinement
By THE EDITORIAL BOARDAUG. 5, 2017
Credit Niv Bavarsky
The Justice Department took a farsighted step last year when it banned the use of solitary confinement for young people in federal prisons. The decision — based on research showing that isolation promotes mental illness and self-harm — followed the widely publicized suicide of Kalief Browder, a young man who had been unjustly accused of a minor crime and sent to New York’s infamous Rikers Island jail complex, where he spent two traumatic years in solitary confinement.
The Justice Department ban has pushed several states to place new limits on their use of punitive isolation for young people. Federal courts have also started to weigh in, pressing states and counties to roll back extreme isolation measures.
Taken together, these developments show that the country’s attitudes are evolving and that the goal of abolishing punitive isolation for juveniles is now a realistic one.
That the country still has a long way to go is documented in a new report from the Juvenile Law Center, a legal advocacy organization in Philadelphia. Among other things, the report shows that solitary confinement for children is still common, even in states that are trying to eliminate it, because policies governing isolation are riddled with loopholes.
In a national survey conducted by the law center, two-thirds of public defenders reported that their juvenile clients had spent time in solitary confinement — ranging from just a few hours to seven months — as a form of punishment, to protect them from other inmates or for administrative reasons.
The defenders reported that their clients were routinely deprived of basic necessities like mattresses, sheets, showers, eating utensils and mental health treatment. Personal belongings like pens, computers or radios are typically prohibited, leaving the young people to pace the confines of a barren cell with only their thoughts for company.
The barbaric conditions of solitary may cause or worsen depression, paranoia and outbursts of anger that often result in even more time in isolation. The report also notes that more than half of suicides in juvenile justice facilities take place when the young person is alone.
The federal courts are increasingly taking issue with this brand of barbarism. Last month, for example, a federal judge in Madison, Wis., required the state to scale back punitive solitary confinement to seven days — from the earlier maximum of 60 — and to also cut back on the use of pepper spray, handcuffs and shackles.
A federal judge in Tennessee issued a similar injunction — aimed at Rutherford County — in March. This summer, the New York Civil Liberties Union and a public defenders group in Syracuse settled a class-action lawsuit with the Onondaga County jail, which agreed to stop putting 16- and 17-year-olds into solitary confinement.
And late last month, Legal Services of Central New York, a public defenders group, sued officials at the Broome County jail for what it described as “dehumanizing” abuses connected to solitary confinement. According to the complaint, juveniles taken to the solitary unit are strip-searched, allowed one hour of exercise per day and permitted showers only every other day. Court documents further assert that children, many of whom suffer from mental disabilities, are regularly held in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, for weeks or even months on end.
Furthermore, the suit says, “Juveniles who reach their breaking point and want to kill themselves are stripped naked and put in a ‘suicide cell.’”
The New York State Department of Corrections has already agreed to stop using solitary confinement against juveniles in state prisons. Having concluded that the practice is counterproductive and inhumane, state officials must now prevail on the county officials to take the same approach.
A version of this editorial appears in print on August 6, 2017, on Page SR8 of the New York edition with the headline: Evolving Attitudes on Solitary for Juveniles.
Media coverage of the civil rights lawsuit vs. the Broome County Jail includes:
In the New York Times (and below): https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/31/nyregion/upstate-ny-county-jails-juveniles-solitary-confinement.html
New York Times:
Upstate County Jails Are Challenged for Sending Juveniles to Solitary
By ALAN FEUERJULY 31, 2017
The Broome County jail in Dickinson, N.Y. A lawsuit says the county’s sheriff and other jail officials routinely locked young inmates into 8-by-10 foot cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for weeks. Credit Brett Carlsen for The New York Times
A year after the Department of Justice banned putting juvenile inmates in federal prisons into solitary confinement, a small network of inmate advocates has undertaken an effort to end the practice in some of upstate New York’s county jails.
In late June, the New York Civil Liberties Union and a public defenders group in Syracuse settled a class-action lawsuit with officials at the Onondaga County jail, who agreed to stop placing 16- and 17-year-old inmates into solitary confinement. Last week, working alone, the public defenders group, Legal Services of Central New York, sued officials at the Broome County jail, saying the sheriff and other jail officials routinely locked young inmates into 8-by-10 foot cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for weeks on end.
The inmates were left with “no meaningful human interaction, no education or programming, no music or television, and limited reading materials,” the suit says.
A large body of scientific research indicates that solitary confinement is especially damaging to adolescents and young adults because their brains are still developing. Prolonged isolation in solitary cells can worsen mental illness and in some cases cause it, studies have shown.
In the last few years, federal officials have wrested similar agreements on ending the placement of young inmates in solitary confinement at local jails in Baltimore; Jefferson County, Ala.; Hinds County, Miss., and at Rikers Island in New York. Under a settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union, which was reached at the end of 2015 and is still being put into effect, the State Department of Corrections has agreed to stop putting juvenile inmates into solitary confinement at all state prisons.
Lawyers for the teenage inmates in Onondaga and Broome Counties said the vast majority had been placed in solitary as a punishment even before their trials and had been held there, in some cases for extended periods, without having been convicted of a crime.
“Despite an emerging consensus that solitary confinement places juveniles at risk of serious harm — including suicide, psychosis and post-traumatic stress disorder — and despite a national abandonment of the solitary confinement of juveniles, the Broome County Sheriff’s Office has embraced the frequent and arbitrary use of solitary confinement,” the most recent lawsuit said. “As the Sheriff’s Office is well aware, these practices are exposing the young people held at the jail to serious harm.”
The Onondaga County jail, which has 671 beds, sits in downtown Syracuse, a city of about 140,000 people. The Broome County jail has about 560 beds and is in Dickinson, N.Y., a small town just outside Binghamton and about a three-hour drive from New York City.
The Broome County suit, which was filed on July 25 on behalf of all young inmates at the jail, cites two plaintiffs, both of whom are 17 and were charged with felonies but have not yet gone to trial. One of them, A.T., arrived at the jail on Nov. 3 and has already been in solitary confinement for more than 100 days. The other, B.C., entered the jail on April 16, 2016, and has spent more than 150 days in solitary.
According to the suit, “nearly every aspect” of the Broome County jail’s solitary wing, or special housing unit, is “dehumanizing.” When juveniles are taken to the unit, they are strip searched, the suit says, and for the first three days are allowed only one religious book. If they do not have a religious book, the suit went on, they are left “with nothing to do but sit and think.”
The cells smell of feces and urine, according to the suit, and are covered in graffiti. Inmates are given a shower every other day and one hour of exercise a day in a yard with no seating, equipment or activities. During their first week there, the suit says, they are shackled at the waist, wrist and ankles in the yard.
The suit says A.T., who is scheduled to remain in solitary until December, started yelling in his cell one day after he was served a peanut butter sandwich on stale bread with a hair in it. Corrections officers entered his cell, forced him into a mechanical restraining chair and pepper-sprayed him, the suit says. He was then taken to another cell, in the jail’s medical unit, where he was forced to take his clothes off and was left naked for two and a half days, the suit says.
B.C. is in solitary for fighting with another inmate and is scheduled to stay there until late September. His previous stints in what is colloquially known as the Box arose from less egregious incidents, according to the suit: for talking loudly, singing, horse-playing, saying hello to his brother in a hallway and playing with snow in the yard.
The Broome County sheriff, David Harder, said that most of his jail’s 500 or so inmates followed the rules, but that those who did not needed to be subject to punishment. “These two,” Sheriff Harder added, “didn’t follow the rules in jail, just like they didn’t on the streets.”
The suit against Onondaga County officials was settled on June 26, four months after Judge David N. Hurd of Federal District Court in Utica, N.Y., issued a ruling that found “convincing evidence” that the jail’s “continued use of solitary confinement on juveniles puts them at serious risk of short- and long-term psychological damage.”
In his ruling, Judge Hurd said juveniles in solitary were forced to eat alone in their cells and were not permitted to talk to one another either through the doors or in passing. They are denied access to radios and TV sets, he wrote, and have only limited reading materials.
For those who are mentally ill, treatment “is limited to jail staff” occasionally asking “whether they are feeling homicidal or suicidal,” Judge Hurd wrote. The inmates were also deprived of their state-mandated rights to an education, he said, hindering “important aspects of their adolescent development.”
Under the terms of the settlement, Onondaga County officials agreed to put juveniles in solitary confinement only if they posed “an imminent threat” to the safety of the jail and then only for “the minimum period of time necessary to resolve the threat.” Jail officials also agreed to write reports about any use of solitary for juvenile inmates, allow juveniles to take at least one shower a day and increase outdoor recreation for juveniles to to two hours.
The settlement also required the Syracuse City School District to provide the inmates access to classes, special education services and an “incentive program” designed to encourage better behavior.
The Justice Department under President Barack Obama weighed in on the Onondaga County suit with what is known as a letter of interest. In it, the department cited studies both by the government and by private organizations that showed that solitary confinement has a particularly “damaging impact” on children and can result in “serious psychological and developmental consequences.”
Joshua Cotter, the staff attorney for Legal Services of Central New York who filed both of the suits, said he had spent the last year or so looking into the solitary confinement practices of several other county jails in upstate New York.
“The main hurdle is finding out when the kids are locked up and put in solitary,” Mr. Cotter wrote in an email. “Since I’m the only one in my office working on this issue, I have to rely heavily on referrals from advocacy groups or parents.”