New York City Ends Solitary Confinement for Minors

December 19, 2014
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A security fence surrounds the inmate housing on New York's Rikers Island correctional facility. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement this week that the city will no longer house minors in solitary confinement comes amid a raging debate about whether the practice is cruel and counterproductive, especially for young inmates.

De Blasio made the announcement during a tour of the city’s Riker’s Island jail on Wednesday. He said there were 91 prisoners ages 16 or 17 in solitary when he took office this year, and that all had been taken out of solitary as of Dec. 4.

Now, he said, young prisoners who violate jail rules will lose privileges instead of being isolated.

“We knew we had to make progress. We knew this was a case where we needed to move quickly. And progress is being made quickly,” de Blasio said Wednesday.

The announcement was insufficient to head off legal action by the U.S. government.

On Thursday, the federal government announced that it had filed a motion to join a case alleging that Rikers Island had violated the constitutional rights of prisoners between the ages of 16 and 18. The suit, Nunez v. City of New York, alleges that the city’s Department of Correction has “engaged in a pattern and practice of using unnecessary and excessive force against inmates,” according to a statement from Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The city did not oppose the government’s motion to join the case, and a de Blasio spokeswoman told FRONTLINE that both the mayor and Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte are committed to improving conditions at the jail and have already made progress.

The deBlasio announcement marks the latest in an important shift around the issue of youth incarceration. Over the past nine years, 24 states have passed laws to limit the placement of juveniles in adult jails and prisons. But about 6,000 juveniles remain in adult facilities in the United States.

Alonza Thomas used to be one of them. As told in FRONTLINE’s Stickup Kid, Thomas was sent to an adult-prison in California at age 16 under a state law designed to target so-called juvenile “super-predators.”

Michael Bien, an attorney representing Thomas, said his client was placed in solitary in part for his own protection, because he was young and vulnerable. But Thomas said the experience of spending up to 23 hours alone each day was extremely traumatic:

I overdosed. Swallowed, like, 300 pills, 250 pills. I would cut myself,” Thomas told FRONTLINE. “Sometimes I would be curled up in the corner for weeks not eating. Just crying, shaking and stuff. I would just lose it, you know. I would just lose it. I would just sit down and talk to people like they were sitting right there with me. I would have full conversations. I would answer their questions and I’d answer my questions. I would have full conversations, you know. It might sound crazy, but whatever works. Being in a room for 23 hours a day is crazy.

Watch the film (story continues below):

On Tuesday, Ian M. Kysel, an adjunct professor and a fellow at the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, wrote a New York Times op-ed noting that a 2003 Justice Department study found that more than 15 percent of young people in juvenile facilities, some as young as 10, had been held in solitary.

Kysel’s research, meanwhile, indicated that the practice of putting teenagers in solitary was more widespread in adult jails and prisons. A Justice Department investigation he cited found that in 2013, a quarter of adolescents held at Riker’s Island were in solitary confinement at any given time.

Dozens were sentenced to more than three months in solitary, and some were held for more than six months, the study found.

In April, FRONTLINE’s Solitary Nation featured prisoners who complained that isolation was making them more violent and aggressive.

“This is what they create in here, monsters,” one inmate said. “You can’t conduct yourself like a human being when they treat you like an animal.”

Watch Solitary Nation:

 

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