Judge Richard Garcia recently sentenced a fourteen-year-old to spend more than a month in solitary lockdown at Ingham Countyâ€™s Youth Center, the place where underage lawbreakers are housed.
Solitary lockdown means no interaction with others except for meals handed in the door. This child is taken out for half an hour a day for a trip to the gym and a shower. His mother and a religious leader are each allowed to visit twice a week. Otherwise â€œbooks and a Bibleâ€ are all he has for company, according to his mother. (Note: This week the child has been allowed more privileges, but is still being kept isolated from others in the facility.)
Solitary Confinement and the Brain
Solitary confinement does strange things to the human mind. Isolation causes people to go crazy. A Human Rights Watch report says:
â€œInmates have described life in a supermax [solitary confinement facility] as akin to living in a tomb. … Prisoners subjected to prolonged isolation may experience depression, despair, anxiety, rage, claustrophobia, hallucinations, problems with impulse control, and/or an impaired ability to think, concentrate, or remember…”
Journalist Terry Anderson, in his memoir about being held captive in Lebanon, said that after just a month in solitary he felt his brain â€œgrinding downâ€: â€œThe mind is a blank…â€ he said. â€œJesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? Thereâ€™s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mindâ€™s gone dead. God, help me.â€
Sometimes the effects are irreversible. Anderson discusses fellow prisoner Frank Reed, who was put into Andersonâ€™s cell after four months in solitary. Reed, who had been director of a school until his capture, was semi-catatonic and couldnâ€™t follow the simplest orders of his jailers. When released, he was put under psychiatric care.
A 2009 New Yorker article, Hellhole by Atwul Gawande, says that solitary confinement was almost banned by an 1890 Supreme Court and was rarely used in the years after that, but it has become common in the last twenty years.
Our mediaâ€™s obsession with highlighting terrible crimes in graphic detail has whipped up the publicâ€™s desire to punish offenders as severely as possible. Supermax prisons are designed to keep inmates in solitary (at the exorbitant cost of $50,000 per year per inmate). Many prison officials would love to see the practice abolished but fear speaking out. One prison commissioner said in the New Yorker article, that when he suggested releasing a single inmate into the general prison population, he was almost fired, articles were written denouncing him and funding was threatened. He said without public support, commissioners can do little to end the practice.
Trouble with a Capital T
But why are we imposing these grim conditions on a child? Right here in Ingham County! I assumed that, because of our proximity to a major university and the state capital, our justice system would be above average in the humane treatment of those in jail. When I first read about this teen, I was convinced that local child protective advocates would be horrified to learn of his isolation and would quickly work to have him put back into the general teen population at the facility.
I have no idea of the childâ€™s guilt or innocence of the charges that landed him in the Youth Center in the first place. I only have issue with this long-term solitary confinement and what it could do to him – or any other child.
However, in researching the subject, Iâ€™m finding that putting children in solitary is quite common. In response to school shootings and other high profile cases in recent years, more and more judges are ruling that teens should be tried as adults, and that brings harsher sentences on the heads of young offenders.
Many local officials Iâ€™ve talked to donâ€™t like the trend, but donâ€™t seem to have an answer. An attorney said that judges donâ€™t legally have the power to micro-manage what happens in the Youth Center in the way that Judge Garcia has done with this order, but that no one wants to countermand his order. â€œJudges are like gods, – they can get away with whatever they want,â€ said an area activist, who wished to remain anonymous.
Remember the pitiful sight of eleven-year-old Detroiter Nathaniel Abraham shuffling into court in chains, even though he stood only elbow high to his jailers?
When teens are bound over for trial as adults, they are sent to adult facilities, even before they are tried. When mixed in with hardened criminals, these juveniles are quickly preyed upon. Youth advocates say, â€˜Solitary is the only way we can keep them safe.â€™
Teens Arenâ€™t Like The Rest Of Us
Safe from what? Sure, if we put them in a box, their bodies are kept safe from molestation, but at the cost of wrecking their minds. A sixteen-year-old in Alaska was recently kept in solitary for seventeen months while awaiting trial. Because his case has gained so much attention, Alaska, not known for being soft on crime, is considering requiring that age be the sole factor that governs whether a child is tried as a child or an adult. It would not be up to judges to decide to shift a child into â€˜adultâ€™ status based on the nature of the crime. Therefore, juveniles would be kept in juvenile facilities where the need to keep them in solitary â€œfor their own protection,â€ presumably, would not be as great.
Our brains are not â€˜fully grownâ€™ until we are in our twenties. If youâ€™ve ever been a teen, you can probably relate some hair-raising â€˜adventuresâ€™ that could have had serious consequences, but at the time, you barely gave a second thought to what might happen. Weâ€™re wired that way. In The Teen Brain, in Harvard Magazine, Debra Bradley Ruder wrote that parts of the brain remain unconnected until between ages 25 and 30. â€œThis leaves teens easily influenced by their environment and more prone to impulsive behavior, even without the impact of souped-up hormones and any genetic or family predispositions.â€
Youths held in solitary become angry, agitated, panicky, depressed, suicidal or withdrawn. Over time, they can experience all of the above. They throw feces, the only thing they can control. They cut themselves just for something to do.
One mother of a teen held in solitary for an extended period says this: “He came out 35 pounds lighter, acting like a zombie. When he came back, he was worse, far worse.â€
Is He a Bad Kid â€“ Or Did We Turn Him Bad
The attorney for the child held in Alaska says that juveniles held in solitary â€œdonâ€™t present well in court.â€ I imagine that this teen now in custody in Ingham County will not appear to be a textbook good citizen at his upcoming hearing. Those like Judge Garcia, who believe in harsh punishments can crow, â€œWe knew he was a bad apple; just look at him.â€ They will sleep well at night believing that the right kid got the right punishment.
They should be aware that this youngster may be completely innocent, but may have become maladjusted by his time in solitary. It could be that the crime here is not the one he is alleged to have committed. It could be that the REAL crime here is the so-called punishment.
Want to do something? Sign our petition urging the end of solitary confinement of juveniles. You can also call or email Judge Garcia, as well as your Ingham County Commissioner and State Representative and ask them to put a stop to the practice of isolating children.