A thirty minute drive from Spring Valley High School, where Officer Ben Fields slammed and dragged a teenage girl out of her desk, several young boys have been shackled and locked in solitary confinement for close to six weeks with little to no human contact.
On September 19, corrections officers at the Broad River Road Complex, a detention center for kids aged 12 to 18 in Columbia, South Carolina, confronted a group of boys who were roughhousing in the Magnolia Housing Unit. When the kids involved refused to be taken to the Crisis Management Unit, or solitary confinement, the officers locked 27 boys in the Magnolia dormitory. In response to being shut in, some of the boys lashed out by destroying property and stealing snacks. Some took keys to remove their shackles.
Soon after, all of the boys were thrown into solitary confinement for rioting.
Seventeen of them were held in CMU for four weeks. Nearly six weeks after the riot, four of them are still there — locked in their cells for 23 hours a day with little to no human contact. Everyone in CMU has been kept in chains — shackled in their cells, showers, and on the basketball court where they are occasionally taken for recreation. Recreation and educational opportunities were only made available to them last week.
“They are denied education. They are denied human contact. They are mistreated,” Aleksandra Chauhan, an attorney for two of the boys, told ThinkProgress. “Those children are in their adolescent years and they’re like, ‘I want to get education, but I’ve missed so much.’ They say they’re behind.”
This week, a student elsewhere in Columbia was flipped, dragged, and arrested by a cop in school for refusing to put away her phone in class. The video exposed how children of color are treated like criminals from an early age. The school-to-prison pipeline, or the increasingly common criminalization of school disciplinary issues, begins with such arrests in the classroom. But it doesn’t end there. The boys’ isolation shows what happens next.
Crackdowns by police in schools like the one caught on video at Spring Valley High can do lasting damage to kids. Once they’re in the system, it’s extremely difficult for children to go back to school. Research shows that children who encounter law enforcement or enter the justice system at a young age run the risk of falling behind in school because they miss class instruction and trail behind in their coursework. They also miss out on developing healthy relationships with teachers and peers, which is crucial for learning self-control.
Unable to keep up, they drop out altogether. Most of them end up in prison at some point.
Technically, kids in prison have a right to learn, but educational services in detention centers are woefully inadequate. Kids of all ages and grade levels are often taught the same materials. With finite resources, facilities are not fully-staffed and instructors often have little experience. States are usually charged with juvenile education, but the quality of learning in detention centers is not monitored closely.
Placing children in solitary confinement makes the uphill climb back to normalcy that much steeper. With little access to rehabilitative services that will give them the skills to successfully re-enter society, the boys are even more likely to fail in the future.
Chauhan and the ACLU, which is also representing one of her clients, contend that indefinite solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. Indeed, research shows that being housed in isolation for 23 hours or more causes psychological and physiological trauma. Criminal justice advocates and members of the faith community consider it a form of torture. There are currently twenty states that ban solitary confinement for juveniles.
“Solitary confinement increases the risk of suicide. Solitary precludes access to education and rehabilitation. Isolation may stunt of growing bodies and developing minds,” the ACLU wrote to DJJ last week.
To make matters worse, the vast majority of the kids at the Broad River Road Complex had no legal representation when they were thrown into solitary.
“What has been an issue in South Carolina [is] we have no formal post-disposition representation of children,” Chauhan explained. “Officers in [the Department of Juvenile Justice] have lots of discretion as to when to send the child to solitary confinement. So for minor infractions, they can call it a safety issue and pretty much send the kid to CMU immediately. It takes days, sometimes weeks for issues to be resolved.”