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.