The story of Kalief Browder, the 22-year-old who committed suicide after spending nearly two years in solitary confinement at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail, is a tragic testament to a life snuffed out by a grinding, unflinching U.S. criminal justice system.
Browder suffered brutal violence not only at the hands of guards and inmates, but his family says he began to mentally deteriorate after being locked in a hot, cramped, 6-by-8-foot cell for days and months on end.
After Browder’s story became a cause célèbre (Jay-Z produced a six-part documentary on his life which aired last year), New York City officially ended solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds in 2016, becoming the second to last state in the nation to do so, although solitary confinement under the guise of “safety” continues to be widespread.
Recently, one of the oldest nonprofit, public interest law firms for children, Juvenile Law Center, released a critical report, “Unlocking Youth,” with key findings on the use of solitary confinement at juvenile facilities nationally.
The report found that despite progress at the federal level and in a growing number of states, solitary confinement of youth remains widespread (two-thirds of the public defenders surveyed reported that their clients spent time in “punitive segregation”), with a disproportionate impact on youth of color, girls, LGBTQ youth and youth with disabilities (and any intersection thereof) because these populations are overrepresented in the criminal justice system and there are few to no resources for them.
The report surveyed public defenders and disability rights advocates and interviewed facility administrators, and it confirmed that the conditions are indeed despicable for our children and often lead to depression, anxiety, hallucinations, self-harm and even suicide, especially in teenagers.
This is one of the reasons that Natane Eaddy, a staff attorney at Juvenile Law Center and co-author of the report, said that there is real danger in treating youths like adults in jails and prisons.
“A lot of it is with adolescent brain development, which is a way of looking at how youth respond to authority,” says Eaddy to The Root. “At a point in time anywhere between adolescence up to 25 years old, youth are going through brain changes. They’re a little bit more impulsive and reactive to a lot of things. Part of it is just healthy and mature development as an adult. They have to push limits. They have to understand what boundaries are, but we have to, as adults, we have to respond appropriately.”
However, instead of an appropriate response, teens in lockup are being retraumatized, especially if they’re coming from a background of abuse or neglect.
“It’s not only solitary,” Eaddy explains. “The shackling of youth while they’re in the courtroom, which is unnecessary, or when they’re being transported between a detention facility to another. There are strip searches that occur. We’re advocating for youth to be treated humanely, first of all, and with dignity, and to recognize that regardless of what, the juvenile justice system was designed to be rehabilitative.”
Further, Eaddy notes, if parents were to do what prisons do, they themselves would be locked up.
Sometimes the reasons given for segregating include “safety” reasons (especially when it comes to girls and LGBTQ youth), but what winds up happening is that the isolation does more harm than good because these youths miss out on having their personal belongings, time outdoors, recreation, counseling and mental health services.
Juvenile Law Center’s position is that solitary should never be used, although Eaddy concedes that youths may need to have a “cooldown moment.” Further, the report notes that juvenile facilities that have stopped using solitary have seen a reduction in violence.
This summer, Juvenile Law Center, along with co-counsel ACLU of Wisconsin and the law firm of Quarles and Brady, won injunctive relief in a class action civil rights lawsuit against state officials for their use of solitary and other harmful practices at two youth facilities in Wisconsin—Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls.
This is the third federal court order this year to hold solitary confinement of youth unconstitutional; similar orders were issued by federal courts in Tennessee and New York. Since 2016, California, Colorado and Washington, D.C., have all passed legislation strictly curtailing the use of solitary confinement in their juvenile facilities.
JLC is also lobbying on Capitol Hill to help senators like Cory Booker pass the MERCY Act, which would ban solitary confinement in juveniles in federal prisons.
But until then, we must be diligent in making sure our youth are getting what they need from the criminal justice system, especially youth with disabilities, who make up 70 percent of those incarcerated, a rate more than three times higher than the general population, according to the National Disability Rights Network. Eaddy explains:
What we’re saying with this report is that solitary shouldn’t be the first response because you don’t have a cell or room to accommodate a youth’s ability. One of the things we found with our research is that youth aren’t getting access to education. They’re getting worksheets to do as if that’s enough to suffice for their educational needs. We tend to see that a lot with youth with disabilities or youth who may have an IEP.
Those requirements aren’t being met, and they’re legally supposed to be met. For us, when we’re saying disabilities, that could be a range of things, but is a facility equipped to accommodate a youth’s needs? If not, then legally, they’re supposed to. If not, then what are they doing to try to meet those needs?
The goal, says Eaddy, is to rehabilitate and not retraumatize, especially for our most powerless.
“Disproportionately, it’s black and brown youth. It’s LGBTQ youth. It’s girls. It’s youth with disabilities,” says Eaddy. “It seems like the most vulnerable of our population are just being targeted. What that means as a society is that when we say we want to invest in children being our future, it’s not those children.”