Posts Tagged ‘Solitary confinement’

More and more people are talking about the inhumanity of locking young kids up in solitary confinement. It’s a topic that I’ve written about before and will continue to write about because I’ve seen firsthand the abusiveness of this “practice” especially on  mentally disturbed kids.

International groups have criticized the United States for using solitary confinement on the young, calling for this practice to be stopped completely.  Yet the governmental response to the issue has been tepid at best. Its guidelines call for this practice to be used  “cautiously.” Tell that to a fifteen-year-old  who is finishing up his 200th day in total isolation.

John Sutter, a human rights and social change writer for CNN, did a probing story about young offenders and solitary that is worth reading. A strong voice in a debate that shouldn’t even be a debate.

Alternet had a very moving piece on the abuse of solitary confinement in US jails entitled “Why is the US the World Leader in the Utterly Inhumane Practice of Solitary Confinement.”  The video is worth watching and says so much about what is wrong with our criminal justice/prison system.

 

Over the last several months I’ve written a lot about kids locked away in solitary confinement. The experience of solitary is real to me in a small way having spent time on the isolation units with my young students. I’ve tried to describe what the utter bleakness is like: the stripped down environment, the cold atmosphere of  glass, steel and concrete, and the overactive AC systems, the deprivation of not seeing another person for hours, in some cases days at a time.

There are reports and studies documenting what life is like for America’s kids in solitary lock-down. Human Rights Watch  “Growing Up Locked Down” and Alternet “The Unbelievable Inhumanity of Solitary Confinement” are two such reports. Each is worth reading.

More powerful than the words of those reports–and remember, I’m a word man struggling to make the suffering of these kids lives palpable –are the drawings that Solitary Watch recently published showing what the inside of an isolation cell looks like. These are powerful pictures. Looking at them I could feel my gut tighten up, my breath shorten. The tomb-like brutality of the place washed over me. Sounds dramatic I know. But I’m not looking for an affect. The sheer stripped down bleakness of the pictures brought it all back.

And they made me think something I’ve thought over and over: if that’s what it was like for me, what must it have been like for the kids I sat with there. If those are my visceral reactions, what might theirs be.

Looking at those drawings makes me wonder, once again, what are we as a nation trying to accomplish by building places like this and locking children up in them?

I’ve written a lot lately about the use of solitary confinement in the prison system and its effects on young offenders, children really,(“The Harm We Do”). One of the things that occurs to me over and over again is what little resources young people have to endure such punishing isolation.

This came across very powerfully to me when I read a New York Times article,  “Prisoners’ Letters Offer a Window Into Lives Spent Alone in Tiny Cells,”  reporting on the many letters the New York Civil Liberties Union has received from adults being held in solitary confinement. The letters are deeply disturbing and filled with the anguish of people feeling totally abandoned by society.

As I read the article I kept thinking, “If this is what adults feel in solitary, what must it be like for a kid, 14, 15 years old, locked up and locked away from any of the normal signpost of compassion and humanity that define our sense of self?” What do we think we are doing to these young people, what do we think we are accomplishing for society? (I say “we” because I increasingly realize that ultimately we, the people of this country,  are responsible for what happens in our prison systems.)

I recently wrote about the “cruel and unusual” punishment of putting young offenders in solitary confinement, forcing them to live in an environment of complete isolation in some cases for months at a time. The reasons for their isolation are myriad: to maintain what corrections calls “safety and security;” to separate the mentally ill  especially if they appear to be disruptive to general population; to “teach them a lesson” (adolescents especially in prison can be oppositional and rebellious); to separate “troublemakers” who  raise issues that perhaps challenge the prison culture.  Whatever the reason, the effects are negative and far-reaching.

Solitary Watch a wonderful and tenacious watchdog of the murky world of solitary confinement, recently posted an article that shows the devastating damage that solitary isolation has on young minds. What consistently comes to my mind is that the damage we do to the young will only come back to hurt society since a damaged young offender will inevitably grow up to be an even more damaged and potentially dangerous adult.

I urge you to check out the article.

I was recently asked to write an opinion piece for Youth Today and am happy to re-post it here, “The Harm We Do: Kids in Solitary Confinement” For those of you who aren’t already familiar with this publication it is an excellent source of information and in-depth reporting on issues confronting at-risk youth. Youth Today is available as an online journal or in print. I personally get the printed version. I’m just a traditionalist that way, but I also find that the visual presentation and layout look great on the full page. Either way the topics covered and the reporting and writing are of the highest quality in any publication I’ve seen in the field–and I see a lot. Check it out Youth Today.

When most Americans hear the familiar constitutional phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” they can tell you what it means, at least to them. Hanging. Flogging. Chopping a hand off. Chain gangs.

Putting juvenile offenders in solitary confinement is high on my list of “cruel and unusual punishment.” What else do you call locking up fifteen, sixteen year olds, some even younger, in total isolation for 24 hours a day, in some cases for months at a time, never leaving their cells? “All an inmate’s needs are met right here,” was the way the warden of the adult county jail where I taught high school students proudly described it as he gave a group of professionals a tour of the new Special Housing Unit (SHU). It was true. Each cell had its own phone, shower, toilet, concrete bed, and adjacent small enclosed rec area. All an inmate’s needs were met, except for the most essential: human contact of any kind.

These conditions are intolerable for anyone and are replicated nationally in our jails. The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that the US has more inmates in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation. But locking up a kid in those conditions, a kid with more energy than a playground can hold; whose body at times practically vibrates with urges that many more advantaged teens struggle to control; whose emotional and intellectual development is at best undernourished, can only be called “cruel and unusual.”

Human Rights Watch agrees. It’s recently released “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life Without Parole in the United States” documents the overuse of solitary confinement with minors and its devastating effects on them, effects heightened by the prospect of life without parole. The young people interviewed considered isolation a “profoundly difficult ordeal,” leaving them with “thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness or depression.”

But it’s not just “lifers” in solitary who experience those “profound effects.” I saw it when I visited my jailhouse students who were locked up in “the cage,” as they called it. They were there because corrections deemed them a threat to “safety and security.” In too many cases, however, that “threat” came from their acting-out behaviors due to untreated mental health issues or ADHD. Still others were seen as “pains in the ass” who “just needed to be taught a lesson.”

It didn’t take long for the new SHU to fall apart, the way everything else does in prison. Walls were scuffed and gouged from inmates being dragged in; cell door windows were smeared as guys jammed and angled their faces to see anything, anyone. The only thing shattering that intense sensory deprivation was the sound of inmates shouting to each other, howling through the thick walls, trying to connect with another human, announcing to the world, “I’m still alive.” And when they weren’t screaming, they were sleeping—15, 16 hours a day.

My students deteriorated as well. Once in isolation they abandoned any sense of civilized behavior. Young guys who would come to class shaven and showered, smelling of Old Spice deodorant, in fresh county oranges, now reeked of unwashed bodies; their hair dirty and matted, faces fuzzed; their eyes caked and puffy from sleep. I would bang on the window until they woke up and lifted their heads from under the pillows and blankets they burrowed under against the cold. They’d shuffle over to the door and we’d squat on our own sides of the concrete and glass wall and talk through the meal tray slot. It was then that I’d be hit by their sour, foul breath as though they were slowly decaying from the inside out.

Finally in 2009 the Department of Justice investigated these abuses. The DOJ reported that half of the inmates in the SHU were between 16 and 18, and that the average stay in isolation for juveniles was 365 days. As a result of these “extremely lengthy sentences,” the mental health of these young people worsened significantly, aggravated “by the jail’s failure” to provide routine treatment. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case. Abuses of minors in solitary are happening around the country.

I don’t know how many people get the irony involved here, but I do know that the kids I taught did, even though they never “got” irony in class: We lock children up in inhuman conditions in order to teach them how to act human. Unfortunately, as studies have shown, inmates learn a far different lesson. When they leave isolation they are angrier, more distrustful, more cynical about ever getting justice, and more prone to violence. What could be a more “cruel and unusual punishment” then to confirm these young people’s bedrock belief that America as it is now has no place for them other than behind bars?

Originally appeared in Youth Today

Solitary Watch has reported that the American Civil Liberties Union has called on the United Nations to investigate civil liberties violations for US prisoners held in solitary confinement and to put pressure on the US to end this punitive and cruel practice. In the county prison where I worked,  I saw first hand the effects of solitary on inmates who were locked up in total isolation for months at a time, and I described some of those effects on Solitary Watch. Although the stated purpose for the “special housing unit” (SHU) was to contain the most disruptive and dangerous prisoners, the SHU ended up being filled with mentally ill inmates left untreated. Once again the US is out of step with our Western European allies in the humane treatment of those who break the law.

I had just finished reading “Safety and Security,” a chapter from my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, at a recent book event. It describes a morning I spent proctoring a state exam for a student who was locked up in solitary confinement at the county jail where I taught high school for ten years.

Each time I read that chapter the horrors of that morning come back to me: the emergency response team dragging in an inmate, struggling, crying, screaming that he couldn’t breathe, that he was dying, couldn’t anybody please help him, until the glass and metal door of his cell slammed shut on his pleas. That morning I knew that I had seen something that no civilian was meant to witness. And I knew, as well, that every man on that block, locked in his own cage of silence, had had a similar story of despair to tell.

After I finished reading the chapter that evening, my listeners sat in stunned silence, caught in the nightmare of solitary confinement. Then, tentatively a hand went up.

“I was married to a man who was in solitary for several years,” a woman in her 60s said. “When I asked him how he made it through, he told me that he practiced walking meditation, and that he got to know, really know, every concrete block in his cell. He said he learned a lot.”

I didn’t doubt her husband’s experience—or her perception of it. Yet I sensed in what she said an attitude I’d heard before from people trying to make sense of this brutal practice. It is an attitude, I suspect, that offers people comfort: solitary confinement as the monk’s cave, as the scholar’s study, as the New Age guru’s retreat; a time for meditation, yoga, reading; self-discovery.

It’s a romantic image—the lone prisoner triumphing over his keeper—that’s been around for awhile and has made its way into the general consciousness. Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz as Robert Stroud serving a life sentence in solitary surrounded by his books and birds. Or Denzil Washington in The Hurricane as Rubin Carter studying his way to personal liberation from his isolation.

Nothing could be further from the truth for the majority of men and women in prisons across the country buried in isolation cells, some for years.

As often as I could I visited my students—some as young as 15—who were locked up in solitary. (Luckily, state education law mandated that an incarcerated high school student must receive some kind of education even in solitary confinement.)

Contrary to that romantic image, the men—young and old—I saw on my escorted walk down the block’s hallway had triumphed over nothing.  “The cage,” as my students called it, reeked of unwashed, long neglected bodies. The walls were scuffed and gouged where shackled inmates writhed and kicked as they were dragged in. The cell door windows were smeared as prisoners jammed their faces at odd angles against the glass, desperate to see anyone, anything, hungry for visual stimulation. If the men weren’t sleeping (and many slept for 15, 16 hours a day, barely waking for meals) they were screeching, howling through the walls, trying to make contact with each other, with another human being, even if those shouts were indecipherable and incomprehensible.

That evening, listening to the woman’s comment, I couldn’t help thinking about those inmates I saw. Few of them, for whatever reasons, had any of her husband’s resources, especially the young men—children really—that I taught whose lives were fractured, some seemingly beyond repair, and whose identities were too fragile to withstand the assault of solitary.

Put in isolation, for behavior the department of corrections deemed dangerous and uncontrollable, a threat to “safety and security”—behavior considered less than human— those individuals were made to live in subhuman conditions in order to learn how to act human. But the only lesson learned is one that most locked up people have known all their lives: There is no end to how cruel we can be to each other; and how easily we are able to justify that cruelty.

Repost from “Solitary Watch”

March 26, 2010

Mother Jones this week ran a powerful two-part excerpt from a new book called I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup. The book is by David Chura, who worked for 10 years as an English teacher in the Westchester County Jail. The published excerpt focuses on the jail’s Special Housing Unit (SHU), which is the euphemism New York State uses for solitary confinement.

As the editors’ introduction puts it, “These state-of-the-art, maximum-security isolation blocks became a trend during the late-1990s prison-building boom…And to accompany the construction spree, state and federal legislators enacted new laws that gave more kids adult sentences in adult institutions.”

As we’ve written before on Solitary Watch, in addition to these converging trends, children in adult correctional facilities are disproportionately likely to be placed in solitary confinement–either because they act up, or for their own “protection.” Large numbers of these kids have psychiatric or emotional problems to begin with, and the affects of isolation on their growing bodies and minds is usually devastating. Cutting and other forms of self-harm are common among these incarcerated children, and suicides are far from rare.

Part 1 of the two-part excerpt from Chura’s book vital background by describing the opening of the then-new SHU, which was actually celebrated as a great improvement over the rest of the jail–cleaner, safer, quieter, and implicitly, more humane. Initially Chura’s students even seemed better behaved–more attentive and less rowdy.

In Part 2, the truth begins to emerge. We’ve included a sample here, but the excerpts–and no doubt the book, as well–are worth reading in full. Chura has also started a blog on abuses of juveniles in the justice system.

It was only after I had been visiting the SHU for a while that I began to see things differently. At first, I thought the changes in my students’ behavior were the result of the calmer, cleaner environment.

But more and more I realized that it was, in fact, the result of their total isolation. They listened, they studied my face, they begged me to return, and they watched me leave because they were hungry—for words, sounds, the sight of people—any stimulation that broke their solitude.

In the months that followed, the SHU began to show this underbelly of deprivation. Conditions deteriorated. The walls got scuffed and nicked where inmates struggled against the emergency response teams carrying them in. Windows grew smeared from hands and faces pressed against the glass.

Gradually, the inmates stopped making their beds. They piled clothes on the floor. They left books and papers wherever they dropped. Now when I visited after class, some of my students would be sleeping. They’d bury themselves under the covers, their heads wrapped up in towels for warmth and to shut out the light.

If I was able to wake them, calling through the tray slot, they’d grumble and splutter to be left alone. Once they knew it was me and got up, they were still polite and appreciative, but they would stare, stunned and bewildered—wondering if I was real or just part of some dream.

And they were dirty. Even the guys who were usually fastidious about grooming became sloppy and disheveled. Like Pinto, who used to arrive to class every day scrubbed, shaved, and smelling of Old Spice. His county oranges would be pressed, and his hair clipped short and brushed to a black lacquer.

But in the SHU, his eyes grew puffy and crusted from endless hours of sleep. His face was covered with a patchy, scruffy beard, and his hair was knotted and woolly. When he leaned down to talk to me his breath was sour, and the odor of his unwashed clothes and body rose out of the metal opening like a malevolent genie.

An update on conditions for at the Westchester County Jail can be found in a scathing report released last fall by the Justice Department, which among other things looked at the use of solitary confinement on juveniles. As summarized by Mother Jones:

At the Westchester lockup, investigators found that half of the inmates recently consigned to the SHU were 16 to 18 years old, and many were doing stints of a year or more in isolation. One 16-year-old got 510 days for assaulting a guard. Another teen, an 18-year-old, was simply thrown in the SHU indefinitely. “Such sentences,” the report noted, “may inflict substantial psychological harm” on juveniles.

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