"Raise the Age" advocates (photo: Correctional Association)
Last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed suit against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office in Syracuse for placing juveniles in solitary confinement. According to the suit, children aged 16 and 17 have been subjected to extended and arbitrary solitary confinement for up to months at a time despite mental health and personal safety concerns. These practices continue in Onondaga County despite the fact the both New York State prisons and New York City jails have banned it. And just this summer the Obama administration also banned the solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal prison system.
In December 2014 the New York State Advisory Committee of the US Commission on Civil Rights, on which I sit, released a report calling for the elimination of solitary confinement for everyone under the age of 25 in New York City and across New York State. We interviewed young people who had been in solitary, toured facilities, heard from experts in the field, and reviewed the existing academic literature and found that these practices are extremely detrimental to the health of young people and do little if anything to make either jails or communities any safer. In fact, spending time in solitary confinement is correlated with higher recidivism rates upon release. There is no evidence that the use of solitary reduces violence in prisons or jails.
We also found that while solitary is an extreme and damaging punishment for adults, it is especially harmful to juveniles given that their brains are still developing and they may not have the same coping skills of a more mature adult. We need only look at the case of Kalief Browder, who killed himself after spending almost two years in solitary at Rikers Island as a juvenile.
Throughout the country juvenile facilities have banned the use of solitary confinement. It continues to be practiced only in a handful of places that place juveniles in adult facilities -- something New York is phasing out even though it remains just one of two states in the country to try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Alleged abuses in Syracuse are even more reason for New York to “raise the age” of adult criminal responsibility, a push that has languished in the state Legislature, largely due to State Senate Republicans.
The NYCLU lawsuit is on behalf of six black and Latino young people who have been subjected to assaults, sexual harassment, threats, and denial of educational access over the most minor infractions or at the whim of guards. Here are some of the details of the individual plaintiffs who are identified by an initial because they are juveniles:
--R is currently in solitary, in part for singing a Whitney Houston song in his cell. In solitary, guards heard the adult above him shout “I’m gonna stab you in the showers” and threatening sexual abuse at all hours of the night, and they responded by moving the adult directly next to him. Yesterday that same adult used a cup to throw his urine in R’s face during recreation.
--V is currently in solitary, and has not been able to change his clothes since September 8. A pre-trial detainee who has never been convicted of a crime, he nonetheless has spent over 115 days in solitary.
--C, currently at the Justice Center, once tried to file a grievance in solitary, and a guard drew a penis on his form before throwing it away. “Being in the box changes you. It makes you do things like think about jumping off your table into the ground,” C said.
--M, currently at the jail, has been sent to solitary for reasons including wearing his shower shoes at the wrong time. A deputy once responded to his complaints by threatening to “bash [his] skull in.” After being in solitary, M now finds it hard to even be in a regular cell for any period of time.
While Onondaga County needs to ban the practice of putting juveniles in solitary confinement, this problem could also be eliminated if the state Legislature would pass the “raise the age” bill. Treating 16- and 17-year olds as adults in the criminal justice system is an inexcusable policy based on the politics of retribution and the hysteria over youthful predators that surfaced in the 1990s, just as juvenile violent crime rates plummeted.
According to Raise the Age NY, the campaign to raise the age that has helped bring the issue to a boiling point, including support from Governor Andrew Cuomo:
--Studies have found that young people transferred to the adult criminal justice system have approximately 34% more re-arrests for felony crimes than youth retained in the youth justice system. Around 80% of youth released from adult prisons reoffend often going on to commit more serious crimes
--Studies show that youth in adult prisons are twice as likely to report being beaten by staff, and nearly 50% more likely to be attacked with a weapon than children placed in youth facilities.
--Youth in adult prisons face the highest risk of sexual assault.
--Youth in adult prisons are often placed in solitary confinement. The isolation young people face in adult facilities is destructive to their mental health and can cause irreparable harm.
--Youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult facility than in a juvenile facility.
Last year the State Assembly passed a raise the age bill, only to see it blocked by the Senate. It’s time for the Legislature and the governor to act on this issue as well as put pressure on Onondaga County to join the rest of the state in banning this cruel and counterproductive practice.
Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is senior policy adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter @avitale.