I remember the first time I ever saw a child locked up in a men's prison. I was walking down the corridor of a maximum-security prison, visiting a prisoner who had been transferred there from the prison where I was working at the time. (That's a sad story for another day.)
Suddenly, I saw the face of a boy, staring out at me bleakly from a cell window. The incongruity of the boy's presence in a men's prison made me do a double-take. I stared back for a long moment into his haunted eyes. When I asked about him later, I was told that, as the only minor at the prison, he had to be locked down 24/7 for his own protection.
I remember thinking at the time that even if a minor was tried and sentenced as an adult, there should be a provision to keep him in a juvenile lockup until he turned 18, so that he would be with others his age, have access to educational programming, and not be such a target for victimization.
Fast forward to 2014, and such a sight is no longer unusual. Thousands of minors across the United States are locked up in adult prisons and county jails, and many of them are kept in solitary. Manhattan's Rikers Island, the second-largest jail in the United States, houses hundreds of minors, and roughly one-fourth are in punitive segregation at any given moment. What makes this especially appalling is that most of these minors are pretrial detainees, not yet convicted of any crime.
Ismael "Izzy" Nazario has recently become the public face of the problem. Now 25 and a case manager for juveniles coming out of Rikers, he estimates that as a juvenile he spent about 300 days altogether in "The Box," a dreaded 6x8 cage; his longest single stay was four months. After a while, he said in a video, you start to go crazy. You pace back and forth and talk to yourself; your eyes start playing tricks on you. "Your mind becomes your own worst enemy."
Nazario's experience is not unusual. According to a state report, teens in solitary at Rikers are more likely than other detained juveniles to try to harm themselves. Nationwide, more than half of detained juveniles who commit suicide do so while locked in solitary confinement.
This is not surprising. As noted by developmental psychiatrist Bruce Perry in an interview with the Center for Investigative Reporting, solitary confinement is bad for anyone -- but it is especially bad for children. And as we forensic professionals know, incarcerated children are not just any children; they are children who have already experienced major losses and traumas in their young lives. Traumas that make them more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of isolation:
"They end up getting these very intense doses of dissociative experience, and they get it in an unpredictable way. They’ll get three days in isolation. Then they’ll come back on the unit and get two days in isolation. They’ll come back out and then get one day. They end up with a pattern of activating this dissociative coping mechanism. The result is that when they’re confronted with a stressor later on, they will have this extreme disengagement where they’ll be kind of robotic, overly compliant, but they’re not really present. I’ve seen that a lot with these kids. They’ll come out, and they’re little zombies. The interpretation by the staff is that they’ve been pacified. 'We’ve broken him.' But basically what you’ve done is you’ve traumatized this person in a way that if this kid was in somebody’s home, you would charge that person with child abuse."
Being a feifdom, Rikers has steadfastly refused to allow journalistic access. But New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm, one of the few outsiders to witness conditions in The Box, pulled no punches in labeling what he saw "torture." Dromm is campaigning for more transparency. At minimum, he wants Rikers administrators to report the number of minors locked in punitive segregation, their ages, and their infractions. “We need to unveil the secrecy," he said.
The international community agrees with his categorization. The United Nations classifies solitary confinement as a form of torture, prohibited for children under international law.
The correctional officers' union disagrees with this prohibition. A spokesman said outsiders just don't understand the need for force -- including punitive segregation -- to keep testosterone-fueled young men in line in "the belly of the beast."
I found that turn of phrase more than a little intriguing, coming from a correctional officer. Although the origins and meaning of the phrase are a bit murky, since the publication of Jack Abbott's prison memoir by that the title in 1981, in reference to the American prison system it is generally used to invoke a brutal and unjust system, which one opposes even from within.
But the phrase is apropros, because beastly the system is. It takes already marginalized youth and bestows the ultimate lesson in disempowerment and dehumanization. As Bruce Perry puts it, it announces to disenfranchised minors that, as a society, "we don’t care for you." That's a harsh message, and one that these young people will have fully internalized by the time they are set back loose into society, broken or vengeful as the case may be. The silver lining is that Rikers Island conditions are gaining traction as a symbol of the plight of children in adult correctional institutions nationwide. PBS Newshour recently highlighted the issue. And the Center for Investigative Reporting features a series of reportson the online media platform Medium.
But how did we ever get to the point that children are being tried and incarcerated as adults in the first place, not to mention locked in solitary confinement in adult institutions? Not all of us are even old enough to keenly recall the 1990s hysteria surrounding juvenile "superpredators," marauding Black and Brown youth who were predicted to engulf society within a few short years if nothing was done to stop them. This week, the New York Times produced a superb"retro report" video, documenting the history of the superpredator panic. Archived news clips bring us back to the moment when it all began, with incendiary predictions of two academics -- prominent political scientist John J. Dilulio Jr. and criminologist James Fox. It was Dilulio who coined the term "superpredator," which invokes an animal menace in hordes of "Godless" young Black males, "a ticking time bomb" waiting to erupt; Fox added his own inflammatory rhetoric about the “bloodbath” that was just around the corner. "And like a match to a flame, the word caught on.... Life in the 1990s [became] dominated by a sense that youth violence was out of control. The future looked bleak. To explain why, one word said it all – superpredators.... A growing wave of kids who were going to ravage the country…. The prediction was terrifying, and lawmakers cracked down on juvenile offenders."
Conservative politicians seized the moment. Aided by fears over changing racial demographics, they were able to pass harsh laws in nearly every U.S. state to allow for juveniles to be tried as adults and to exponentially increase their punishments. Ironically, at the very moment these laws were being enacted, juvenile crime rates began their unprecedented plummet, the exact opposite of what Dilulio and Fox had predicted. The two men now admit that they were flat-out wrong. In 2012, they both went so far as to sign an amicus brief arguing against life imprisonment for children convicted of murder. But it was far too late for that. The punitive social climate they had ignited was like a wildfire that burned far out of control. And it's still burning across the United States, from Rikers Island to Los Angeles County and everywhere in between, consuming untold thousands of teenagers from the most vulnerable classes of society.