At 16, Donyea Phillips hit rock bottom in segregated housing in a Philadelphia jail, with a bed sheet for a noose. “As my fingers and toes started going numb, I remembered Sarah,” he said. Sarah Morris, who runs arts workshops for children in the jails, was the only person he could recall encouraging him, reports Philly.com.
“She told me I was good at writing poems. At the last minute, I remembered that. When I got a sheet around my neck, she saved my life.” Phillips, now 25 and serving 25 to 50 years for shooting and wounding two police officers he thought were home intruders, did not attempt suicide again.
He spent nine of 11 months in jail in isolation. Suicide is the top cause of death among incarcerated juveniles, and a U.S. Department of Justice study found half those suicides take place in solitary confinement. Psychologists say isolation also can inflict lasting damage on developing brains and trigger or exacerbate mental illness.
In Philadelphia last year, juveniles were placed in punitive segregation 41 times, for an average of 32 days. While state law bans seclusion for youths in juvenile placements, advocates say a loophole allows facilities to isolate them for weeks or months.
A juvenile found to have violated a rule can be punished with a fixed term of segregation. Juveniles segregated for administrative reasons do not face set terms and are reviewed weekly. In either setting, a juvenile is alone in a cell at least 22 hours a day. In New Jersey, the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center (JLC) sued on behalf of a teenager who came out of seven months in solitary with severe self-mutilation.
A subsequent law limited solitary confinement for children, and a bill passed by the state Senate in June would end juvenile solitary altogether.