Freeing Youths From Solitary Isn't Enough


It came as a surprise to many that the New York City Department of Correction announced an end to the practice of using solitary confinement on 16- and 17-year-olds jailed at Rikers Island, the country's second largest jail complex.

Solitary confinement amounts to government-sponsored torture. Individuals in solitary confinement are held for 23 hours a day, for months and even years. They are denied the most basic human contact, fed through a slot in a door, and suffer from a lack of therapeutic and educational services.

What is particularly startling is that children, people with mental illness, pregnant women and other vulnerable populations are subject to such isolated confinement. Equally alarming is the length of time, often months and even years, that these individuals endure in extreme isolation.

The United Nations has declared that these specific vulnerable populations should not be subject to solitary confinement under any conditions, and that 15 days of solitary confinement is torture for any human being.

While the announcement that children will no longer be subject to solitary confinement on Rikers Island signaled a clear administrative change—likely due to negative press and not from any sense of conscientious obligation— a great deal more needs to be done.

Even with the level of press Rikers has received in recent weeks, the underlying systemic causes of many of the ills at the facility continue to be ignored. And further changes are not likely until another dehumanizing event attracts enough public attention to drive another piecemeal reform.

Ending solitary for children is clearly an acknowledgement that the practice of isolated confinement is inappropriate. But it does not address the fact that New York is one of two remaining states that automatically prosecute 16-and 17-year-olds as adults, subjecting them to being housed in adult jails and prisons.

The bottom line is that children do not belong in jail or prison at all.

And if we are going to lock kids up, at a bare minimum, they must be housed in youth facilities, where they are more likely to receive the kinds of developmentally appropriate services proven to work.

Also, all players in the systems, from police officers to judges to facility staff, must be trained to competently work with young people. That includes recognizing and responding to the trauma that often drives their behavior. And we must do more to stop the pipeline of kids entering the system as a result of “broken windows” policing, stop and frisk, and school-based arrests.

For many children under 16, New York State has made tremendous strides in improving youth justice. New York has dramatically reduced the number of youth who spend time in pre-trial detention and placement by expanding the range of community-based programs that keep kids home with the help and services they need.

Since 2009, the state has been able to close 28 youth facilities, improving outcomes while saving money. The Close to Home initiative means that many New York City youth are no longer being sent to facilities far upstate. Instead they are being served in programs and facilities closer to family and community support networks, making it more likely they will succeed upon release.

All of these reforms have been accomplished without compromising public safety: youth crime in New York continues to decline.

But none of these reforms impact the 16- and 17-year-olds our state treats as adults.

While ending solitary confinement for children will likely put an end to some of the most severe psychological trauma caused to these young people, it will not change the everyday brutality inside jails and prisons. Nor will it change the lifelong consequences of an adult criminal record, which include barriers to employment, education and housing.

And this reform will likely not reduce violence among youth on Rikers.

Jail is a hyper-violent setting that increases the propensity for violence of staff and individuals who are incarcerated.

The prison culture of “get before got” pushes many men and women caught behind bars into patterns of verbal and physical violence just in order to survive a brutal unforgiving environment. And staff brutality on Rikers is, as the federal government found, an ingrained part of everyday culture.

Where does this new change leave us?

The end of solitary confinement for children will alleviate some of the most extreme trauma young people face in jails. However, young people will still be forced to endure the dehumanizing nature of jail in their most formative years. They will be subject to levels of violence many thought had been rendered obsolete with the end of the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

And they will suffer conditions as egregious as the infamous mental institutions of yesteryear.

More frightening is that many of these young people will endure this fate in obscurity— out of sight of those who may care, and out of reach of the hands that may help.

While it is important to acknowledge that the decision is significant, we must now address some of the underlying problems of incarceration in black and brown communities, particularly for children prosecuted as adults.

It is past time for New York to raise the age of criminal responsibility for all youth, to get all kids out of adult jails and prisons, and to trade its investment in torture and violence for one in prevention and treatment.

Angelo R. Pinto is Raise the Age Campaign Manager of the Juvenile Justice Project at The Correctional Association of New York. He welcomes comments from readers.

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