The Crime of Punishment

by Kristin Herbert

“I was 15 the first time I went to solitary,” said Edwin R., now in his late 20s.

“I had just found out my father passed away, and this guy called me over to fight. Either way, it’s not good to turn it down if someone calls you out like that, but at that time, I was just like yeah.”

Edwin has a quiet and alert presence. He wears a gray polo shirt that features the nonprofit organization, based in Los Angeles, California, for which he works full-time as a youth advocate, counseling juvenile justice-involved youth as they work to set educational and career goals, re-enter their communities, meet the terms of their probation, permanently seal their records, and achieve successful and fulfilling lives.

“So anyways, we fought, and obviously they caught us. But the most frustrating thing for me was that before I went to solitary confinement—they stripped us both down naked in front of everybody and told us to squat and cough as if we had weapons. If we had weapons,” Edwin says, “we would have used them in the fight.”

“They did it to humiliate us. They went ranting about how dumb we were, in front of the whole dorm. ‘See these guys, how stupid they are?’

“Then I went to solitary for three days.”

Edwin was forced to grieve his father’s death in solitary, without any counseling services or even companionship. “They treat you like an animal. You have to bang on the door to use the restroom, and they ignore you on purpose.”

Senate Bill 124, introduced this spring by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), seeks to define and limit solitary confinement at state and county juvenile facilities in California, in keeping with efforts in several other states to curb its overuse and abuse. The Senate Public Safety Committee will review the bill at the beginning of April 2015.

Co-sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund—California along with Youth Justice Coalition, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and the California Public Defenders Association, SB124 aims to reform current use of solitary confinement in the following ways: define solitary confinement; provide that it only be used when the youth poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility, and only when all other less restrictive options have been exhausted; provide that the youth be held in solitary confinement for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk; empower juvenile justice commissions to report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

The United Nations has defined solitary confinement as torture and in 2011 called on all countries to ban solitary confinement of all prisoners except in very exceptional circumstances, issuing an absolute prohibition of the practice in the case of juveniles and people with mental disabilities.

The federal government is taking steps to eliminate solitary confinement. In most states, its use has been severely restricted or is being phased out by law. California, often looked to as a progressive state, is an outlier in policy and practice with respect to solitary confinement for juveniles.

Angela Chung, a juvenile justice policy advocate with the Children’s Defense Fund—California, said that “despite years of lawsuits and Department of Justice monitoring in 58 various counties, abuses of solitary confinement continue to occur in California regularly. While the state has some regulations regarding the use of isolation practices through Titles 15 and 24, each facility controls how they report, what counts as solitary confinement, and how it gets reported to the public if at all. Consistent regulation for the state and all 58 counties must exist to prevent continued abuses, related injuries or deaths, or avoid costly lawsuits.”

A 2011 audit of California youth prisons found that youth were often isolated in their cells for 23 hours per day or more. During a 15-week period, there were 249 separate recorded incidents of solitary confinement at five different facilities. Contra Costa County’s juvenile hall is the subject of a federal lawsuit for isolating youth for 23 hours a day and denying education as punishment.

“It’s time for this practice to end,” said Chung. “Seventy- five to 93 percent of the youth who enter juvenile justice system have already experienced trauma, and solitary confinement is particularly psychologically damaging to such already-vulnerable youth. Anywhere else that you lock a child in a closet, child welfare services would be called.

Jesse A., now in his early 20s, recalled his first experience in solitary confinement.

“I was 12 years old and put in a room by myself for about a week until I was released,” Jesse said. “It’s against the law if you’re 15 years or younger—you cannot be put into a room with someone. The effect is that if you’re incarcerated and you’re under 15, you’re in solitary. It was just horrifying, really, to think that I was in there by myself.”

Solitary confinement has been proven to increase and even cause mental illness. In April of 2012, the American Academy of Children and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), noted psychiatric impacts of prolonged solitary confinement including depression, anxiety, psychosis. Nationally, over half of the youth who committed suicide in a correctional facility were in solitary confinement at the time, and 62 percent had a history of having been placed in solitary confinement.

“I didn’t know how long I would be in” Jesse said about his first brush with the juvenile justice system when he was 12. “It was literally driving me crazy, not knowing what was going to happen. If they had told me I would be there for two years, that would have been better than not knowing.”

“The last two days I was there, I was really just losing my mind. I remember balling up in the corner, trying to break the window, trying to break through the door, punching and kicking the brick walls, throwing the mattress around.”

“They came and told me if I didn’t stop, they would mace the room.” 

Now a student at East LA College, Jesse is working towards his bachelor’s degree in politics while minoring in criminology. He shares his perspective on why solitary confinement backfires:

“The thing about solitary is you realize that it really is the worst thing that can happen to you. If you survive that, you can survive anything else. You lose all fear. So what that does psychologically to a person is that it really opens the gates to a lot of trouble. You have a sense that you have nothing else to lose. It opens this door into this dark realm. There are no limits to push. You can do whatever you want, because they can’t put you through anything worse.”

Kristin Herbert is Director of Executive Communications at the Coalition for Engaged Education in Santa Monica, California. She wrote this story as a student in the Journalism for Social Change Small Private Online Course. 

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