For the past two years, Lisa Ortega has watched her son decay mentally and physically behind bars.
With every visit to Rikers Island, the mammoth New York City jail complex which houses juvenile as well as adult offenders, she saw her once-outgoing boy “change for the worse.”
“He lost his hair, he got juvenile diabetes,” said Ortega, 44. “I would get eye contact only sometimes, but his shoulders would slump.
“There was nothing except bitterness.”
Kendall Davis, Ortega's son, was convicted of two counts of criminal possession of a weapon in 2010, when he was 16 years old, she said.
At the time, Davis was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) by a doctor, Ortega said.
But now the Bronx mother worries his mental problems have slid into dangerous territory.
“He's losing touch with reality,” she said. “He doesn't know how to build a conversation any more, he seems like he’s somewhere else. I don't know what's going to happen.”
Ortega blames what she claims is the repeated use of solitary confinement as punishment for minor infractions like walking in line too slowly, which left her son locked in a tiny room by himself for weeks at a time.
“He was put in solitary constantly, and he'll never be the same because of it,” she said. “For 23 hours a day he couldn't do anything; he was by himself.”
Davis' case is far from unusual.
According to an October report prepared by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for juvenile offenders held in detention facilities “makes many young people feel doomed and abandoned, or in some cases, suicidal, and can lead to serious physical and emotional consequences.”
The 141-page document, titled Growing Up Locked Down, surveys the use of the practice in 19 states, and provides no quantitative or comparative data.
But it identifies what it claims is a disturbingly frequent use of the punishment in the states that were surveyed, based on interviews and letters from over 125 young people who had spent time in solitary confinement while under age 18.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the report estimated that 10 percent of young people under the age of 18 “are consistently held in a form of solitary confinement.”
The report noted that “Pennsylvania is among the 15 states that hold the largest number of young people under age 18 in adult prisons.”
The states surveyed also included: Connecticut, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia on the east coast; Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina in the south; Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and Wisconsin in the midwest; and Colorado, California and Utah in the west.
According to the report, “adolescents in solitary confinement describe cutting themselves with staples or razors, hallucinations, losing control of themselves, or losing touch with reality while isolated.”
20 Days in Solitary for Fighting
The report cited New York City Department of Correction figures indicating that a typical period of punitive solitary confinement for fighting for adolescents between the ages of 16 and 18 is 20 days—and that the median period of solitary confinement for all varieties of punishment adolescents is 29 days.
“New York City officials hold more than 14 percent of adolescents on Rikers Island in solitary confinement and for longer, on average, than adults,” Ian Kysel, author of the report, said in an interview.
“Solitary is costly to taxpayers and is a barrier to normal adolescent development and rehabilitation.”
Kysel concedes that in some instances brief periods of isolation from the general prison population may be needed as a security measure in some cases, but “any use must be strictly monitored and used for the shortest period of time.”
Kysel continued: “The goal must always be to return the young person to the general population. It must never be so extreme as to constitute solitary confinement—and it never needs to be.”
In response to the report, DOC Commissioner Dora Schriro said her department was undertaking a “comprehensive review and reform of the ways young adults are supervised in jail and readied for release.”
She said in an interview that the goal was to secure prisons for both inmates and prison guards, noting that one of the ways Rikers Island is planning to stop the over-use of solitary confinement is through a “time-out” strategy.
Schriro added that the strategy, which involves a temporary cell restriction, is being applied in many juvenile and adult systems around the country and provides an alternative to the formal disciplinary process.
She claimed it will “offer youth in the city’s system additional opportunity for self-correction— preventing escalation of events and averting infractions.”
Opponents of the punishment insist that the practice promotes mental instability.
'Cruel and Inhumane'
Dr. Louis Kraus, director of the child and adolescent psychiatry program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago calls solitary confinement for youths harmful.
“The facilities say 'we're going to really punish them and they'll behave,'” he said. “The reality is that it's cruel and inhumane, a degrading level of corporeal punishment.
“The question really extends as far as: is it torturous in nature?”
He added that youths held in solitary confinement have a greater incidence of mental health issues.
“Kids are different than adults,” he said.
“Juveniles should have rehabilitation. If a child is in solitary confinement for any period of time (he or she will) be at a higher risk of a mental health issue than the regular population and at a higher risk of committing suicide.”
Ortega said the worst infraction her son committed was raising his voice and cursing because he was deprived of his juvenile diabetes medication by a guard. Because of this, she claims, he was confined to a small room with a thin mattress, no toothbrush and only one meal per day.
He remained by himself for 23 hours a day, she said.
The Crime Report was unable to confirm her account. Nevertheless, Dr. Kraus said this type of punishment is often meted out in juvenile detention facilities, where it is described as “minimal time-outs for behavioral control.”
“Typically, they say it's a safety issue, not a mental health issue—when that should be the focus,” he said.
Ortega now says the biggest fear her once-cheerful boy has is getting out of prison at age 18.
He is slated for release on December 4.
“He will never be the same,” she said. “He's destroyed. He feels like he's not worth anything. He is scared to come home. He doesn't know what to do.”
The mother said solitary confinement altered his view of humanity as well.
“He's mad at the system,” she said. “They're not nurturing and rehabilitating the youth. What they're doing is creating monsters.
“And the monsters will retaliate and it will be bad.”
Henrick Karoliszyn is a reporter for The New York Daily News, and a 2012 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. He welcomes comments from readers.