OP-ED: The Solitary Confinement of Youth

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Tamar Birckhead new head shotIsmael Nazario was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., by his mom, a single parent who always emphasized the importance of education and doing well in school. When Ismael was 13, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she underwent chemotherapy and radiation, Ismael began to struggle.

By 10th grade, he had lost interest in school and instead spent his time smoking marijuana and talking to girls. At 15, he got into a scuffle with another student and was arrested, placed in handcuffs and taken to the police station. A year later, at age 16, he was charged with assault and sent to Rikers Island jail to await resolution of his case.

There he was attacked by four inmates who demanded his phone privileges and commissary food and required him to ask their permission before sitting in a chair or using the bathroom. Ismael quickly learned that in order to survive, he needed to be ready to fight.

Although Ismael’s assault charge was ultimately dismissed, the two months that he spent in jail changed the way in which he saw himself and his place in the world. The following year, at age 17, he was once again held at Rikers — this time for two alleged robberies — as he could not afford to post bail. After getting into a fight with a group of other inmates, which guards characterized as inciting a riot, Ismail was placed in solitary confinement.

While there, he hallucinated, paced, talked to himself, cried and screamed. The New York City Department of Corrections disciplinary rules allow for inmates to be sentenced to punitive solitary confinement for such seemingly minor infractions as horseplay, noisy behavior or annoying a staff member.

Before Ismael left Rikers two years later, he had spent more than 300 days in “the box,” a six-by-eight-foot cell containing a bunk, sink, toilet, and metal door with no natural light and a small mesh window through which food is delivered. His longest stretch in solitary lasted four months. All of his time incarcerated at Rikers was in pretrial detention — he had not yet been convicted of a crime.

Ismael Nazario’s experience is representative of the many thousands of young people who are held in isolation on any given day across the globe. I’ve conducted new research that reveals that approximately 30 percent of the world’s countries either employ the practice or legally condone its use.

Whether the young person is held in a juvenile or immigrant detention center, adult jail or prison, the common denominator for all these settings is that the individual is under the age of 18, removed from the general population of the facility, and kept alone in a room or a cell for 23 hours each day, with one hour of exercise in what is often a small cage.

Frequently the triggering event for imposing isolation is a relatively minor misbehavior that violates the facility’s rules. Large percentages of teenagers in solitary have diagnosed mental health problems. Solitary may also be imposed during pretrial detention to coerce suspects into confessing or pleading guilty.

Government entities have long justified the practice of solitary confinement on only a few grounds. U.S. Bureau of Prisons regulations stipulate that solitary confinement is warranted to ensure the safety and security of the facility or as a sanction for committing a prohibited act. Corrections officers maintain that solitary is the best way to prevent violence among inmates, many of whom are mentally ill, and is necessary for prison guard safety. Studies have found that isolation is one of the key correlates for reports of illness, self-mutilation and jail suicides.

When the inmate is alone and living in disciplinary or segregated housing, violence toward staff has also been found to be significantly more likely. It has even been suggested that isolation and intensified control measures in prison settings generate a culture or ecology of cruelty, causing long-term psychological harm to the correctional officers who work in these units. Likewise, studies have found that subjecting prisoners to solitary confinement makes it more difficult for them to assimilate back into their communities, increasing the risk of recidivism.

There is no easy answer to the question of why the practice of isolating young inmates continues to persist despite extensive evidence of its harm. Since the 1980s, a major factor has been the tough on crime penal philosophy perpetuated by legislators and a lack of meaningful judicial review of the conditions of isolation. From the perspective of those within the prison industrial complex, it is easier to keep adolescent super-predators locked alone in cells than to implement the reforms necessary to create a healthy correctional environment.

This attitude is particularly pronounced when the young people are black or brown, have no one to advocate for them, and have been labeled bad kids or throwaway kids by the juvenile and criminal justice systems. These factors are further compounded by the high percentages of imprisoned youth who are mentally ill, have drug or alcohol addictions, or both, presenting even greater challenges to facilities with few resources.

Ismael Nazario, who spent more than 300 days in “the box” in Rikers Island jail, is now in his mid-20s. His mother survived cancer, and she and her son are still close. Ismael eventually pled guilty to one of the robbery charges and the other was reduced to a misdemeanor, enabling him to avoid a felony conviction. Since his release he has found meaningful employment — for three years he worked as a case manager with at-risk adolescents in Brooklyn and more recently with adults and teenagers who have been released from Rikers Island. Ismail does not talk with his clients about his own time in the box, but he has seen what the experience has done to other boys.

Most young people who are held in isolation are not as fortunate as Ismail. Yet, the question of whether to continue to isolate youth cannot be characterized as merely another intractable issue about which reasonable minds may differ. The justifications that allow governments to keep teenagers alone in cells for hours, days and weeks at a time are not the result of rational thinking based on evidence. Instead, the solitary confinement of youth is one more byproduct of the systemic problems that continue to plague modern society: the vanishing social safety-net, generational poverty, implicit bias, the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration and the criminalization of mental illness. Ending the practice of isolating children is an important step toward confronting these broader issues.

Tamar. R. Birckhead is associate professor of law and the director of clinical programs at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Her research on solitary confinement will be published in 2015 in the Wake Forest Law Review.

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