In New York City, teens 16 and older are held in jail with adults. They are subject to treatment including “brute force” and intimidation at least as brutal as that endured by adults in the notorious Rikers Island jail — a place where the vast majority of inmates have been charged but not yet convicted of any crime. But as of December, the teens younger than 18 will no longer be held in solitary confinement.
In the wake of a scathing Department of Justice report that caused U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara to call Rikers Island “a corrections crucible that seems more inspired by Lord of the Flies than any philosophy of human detention,” the New York City Department of Corrections announced it would reform at least one of its most tangible policies that the Justice Department said violates the constitutional rights of these teens. City officials said the announcement was unrelated to the federal investigation.
That August investigation had found that an “alarming” number of inmates were being held in solitary confinement. At Rikers Island, confinement means isolation in a six-by-eight cell 23 hours a day, with one hour of recreation that consists of isolation in an “individual chain-link cage.” “[M]any inmates choose to remain in their cells due to depression or because they do not want to submit to being searched and shackled just to be outside in a cage,” the investigation explained. These inmates are not even allowed to attend school, although they have option to listen in on the telephone. The teens are often placed in solitary confinement for nonviolent offenses such as shouting obscenities and failure to obey orders promptly that “is often viewed as characteristic adolescent behavior” outside of jail.
Isolation of inmates is associated with severe psychological affects for all inmates even after just a few days, ranging from hallucinations and extreme paranoia to persistent post-traumatic stress disorder and irritability. But isolation is known to have particularly lasting impacts on still-developing adolescents and the mentally ill, and several courts have held that confinement of the mentally ill is unconstitutional. At any given time, some 15 to 25 percent of the teen inmates are placed in confinement, and some 73 percent of those have been diagnosed with moderate to severe mental illness.
Confinement can also lead to self-harm and suicide. The Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence found in a 2012 report that “[n]owhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.”
This confinement has also been associated with increased anger and violence. And the DOJ found that the use of longtime confinement as a punishment, rather than to segregate dangerous inmates, has led to a “vicious cycle that serves to perpetuate rather than curb inmate violence,” particularly because inmates are not given the mental health treatment they need while in confinement. The report found that confinement “may make these adolescents more prone to unstable and violent behavior, and exacerbate the mental health issues prevalent among the Rikers adolescent population.”
Ending confinement is perhaps the most straightforward fix to the problems flagged in the report, and a memo described it as the “first round of changes” intended to “meet our shared commitment to a safe, just and age-appropriate correctional setting” for teen inmates, according to the New York Times. At the same time, however, a New York State bill awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature would take away the power of county prosecutors to hold corrections officers accountable for their conduct at Rikers.
Among those held at Rikers and sent multiple times to solitary confinement is Kalief Browder, who spent more than three years in the jail starting at age 16 before the robbery charges against him were mysteriously dropped, without any conviction or even a trial. One night in solitary, he tried to hang himself with a bedsheet. “He was taken to the clinic, then returned to solitary,” according to a New Yorker report on his confinement. That wasn’t the last time he tried to kill himself in solitary confinement, nor since he was released. “Being home is way better than being in jail,” he told the New Yorker. “But in my mind right now I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.”
New York is slowly but surely moving away from solitary confinement of the most vulnerable populations. In February, the state banned solitary confinement for those younger than 18 at its prison facilities (Rikers is run by New York City) and set guidelines for maximum sentences in confinement, both to settle a class action lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. And in January, New York City said it would stop sending mentally ill inmates to confinement. The Justice Department investigated Rikers Island for the three years preceding that announcement found that a significant number of the teens placed in solitary confinement suffered from mental illness.
A few other jurisdictions are also changing their practices. Last month, California announced it would move inmates with mental illness from solitary confinement to other segregated units that would allow inmates more time outside their cell. But some 80,000 U.S. inmates are held in confinement at any given time, including many juveniles and inmates with mental illness.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara warned Tuesday that the city’s solitary confinement plan is “encouraging” but not enough, ABC News reported. “[T]here’s a lot more that needs to be done,” he said at a forum, hinting that federal prosecutors will pursue a lawsuit if the jail doesn’t institute a host of other reforms. “My commitment is that one way or another, whether it’s being done voluntarily or pursuant to a court command, that we’re going to get some real, enduring, enforceable reforms at Rikers.”