- The Sand Hill Review 2008.
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Prisons, jails and juvenile halls try to keep their records secret and refuse to open their doors to scrutiny, and the federal government allows states to operate with little oversight. Along the way, the stories of minors locked up alone for months persist, despite strong evidence that extended periods of solitary confinement can lead to mental illness and suicide. In Polk County, Fla. Those at risk of committing suicide were dressed in smocks and held in cages, usually alone but in full view of other inmates, the suit says.
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In Texas, state records show that in , juvenile facilities locked minors in solitary confinement more than 36, times. Every state has its own system for collecting data, if it collects any at all, and each defines solitary confinement in its own way. Obscuring the picture further, states including Texas and California allow juvenile facilities to create their own isolation policies, and their numbers can go unreported. The auditors found that those numbers — from four youth prisons over four months — had not been reported to state headquarters and that agency officials had failed to monitor conditions inside the facilities.
If tracking juvenile isolation is tough, regulating it is tougher.
The U. Department of Justice has called prolonged juvenile isolation cruel and unusual punishment. Attorney General Eric Holder has condemned the practice, and U. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Despite increasing rhetoric in Washington, no federal laws prohibit solitary confinement for youth or limit the number of weeks or months they can be locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. Only the U. Although federal regulations require that minors in juvenile facilities go outside to exercise for an hour each day, most states allow hour lockdowns that can go on indefinitely.
Seven states — Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and West Virginia — have placed some prohibition on juvenile solitary confinement. Robert Listenbee, head of the juvenile justice division of the U.
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Department of Justice, has told youth advocates that he takes the issue seriously and that preliminary discussions on isolation have taken place. Still, his office has not implemented any new regulations prohibiting solitary confinement. He declined to comment. Few in the corrections business admit that they use solitary confinement. Instead, they call it punitive segregation, disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, protective segregation, room time, room restriction, room confinement, disciplinary confinement, secure housing, behavioral treatment housing, restricted housing, restricted engagement, reflection time, suicide watch or isolated confinement for monitoring risk of suicide or self-harm.
When Nazario was at Rikers, he says, some minors were so desperate to avoid solitary that they would stick AA batteries in their rectums to set off the metal detector on the way to the box. In New York, not everyone opposes putting teenagers in the box, starting with the president of the city correction officers union, Norman Seabrook. Raised in the South Bronx, Seabrook says that he was kicked out of five high schools and that it must have been a guardian angel that kept him from winding up dead or in jail.
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We had the same mom. At Rikers, Seabrook says, solitary confinement is the tool that allows correction officers to make it through the day. Last year, reports by the New York City Board of Correction, an independent panel that monitors and regulates city jails, showed that about a quarter of adolescents at Rikers were in solitary confinement on any given day. Of the teenagers in solitary, almost three-quarters had diagnosed mental health problems.
But because the teens are brought to the jail, the union has fought hard to make sure solitary confinement reform does not take hold. That rule helped cause a massive backlog at Rikers that resulted in a waiting list to get into solitary confinement. Local advocacy groups formed the Jails Action Coalition and called for an outright ban on solitary confinement for juveniles and mentally ill inmates. New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm drafted bills to end the owed-time policy and require the Department of Correction to publish monthly reports detailing solitary practices on its website.
After months of bickering, the Board of Correction voted in September to begin creating new rules that would reduce solitary at Rikers.
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That process is expected to take at least another year. When New York state initially made headlines with its proposed ban on punitive solitary for juveniles, Rikers officials declared themselves ahead of the curve. Recent reports indicate that adolescent inmates are serving shorter stretches in the box, and a one-day snapshot from January showed an Still, no new regulations are in place, and no media have been allowed to see how teenagers live in the box.
One is a longtime drug addict who has been in and out of Rikers and state prison for more than a decade and did long stretches in the box. The other runs The Fortune Society, which aims to help people stay free once they leave jail. Dromm toured Rikers in fall Dromm is a former public school teacher with a thick Queens accent.
Although his grandfather and uncle were both longtime New York City police officers, he maintains a distrust of the potential for abuse in law enforcement. Dromm is one of the few outsiders to witness firsthand how teenagers live in the box.
On his tour of Rikers, he stopped short when he got to adolescent solitary. Seabrook, for all of his bravado, says the same thing. Lorenzo Steele Jr. He limps from an Achilles tendon injury he got playing softball with a group of city correction officers.
He used to be one of them. During his year tenure guarding adolescents at Rikers Island, Steele became the de facto jail photographer, capturing birthday and retirement parties for his union brothers and sisters. He also captured life in the box. You could see his socks. You could actually see the dirt inside the cell. Steele says the adolescent units were savage. He used to watch boys getting their faces stitched in the infirmary after being slashed by rival inmates.
Kennedy International Airport. On a table in his living room sits a display case made of wood and Plexiglas, 3 feet square, full of medieval-looking homemade weapons confiscated at Rikers Island. He says it was a retirement gift from the warden. Steele is tall and friendly, with a deep, raspy voice. Pages can include considerable notes-in pen or highlighter-but the notes cannot obscure the text.
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