“Why lock somebody up while you’re locked up? You’re trying to kill their spirit even more,” says Michael Kemp, describing his six-month stay in solitary confinement at age 17.
Solitary confinement was once a punishment reserved for the most-hardened, incorrigible criminals. Today, it is standard practice for tens of thousands of juveniles in prisons and jails across America. Far from being limited to the most violent offenders, solitary confinement is now used against perpetrators of minor crimes and children who are forced to await their trials in total isolation. Often, these stays are prolonged, lasting months or even years at a time.
Widely condemned as cruel and unusual punishment, long-term isolation for juveniles continues because it’s effectively hidden from the public. Research efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition have struggled to uncover even the most basic facts about how the United States punishes its most vulnerable inmates.
How can a practice be both widespread and hidden? State and federal governments have two effective ways to prevent the public from knowing how deep the problem goes.
The first has to do with the way prisons operate. Sealed off from most public scrutiny, and steeped in an insular culture of unaccountability, prisons are, by their very nature, excellent places to keep secrets. Even more concealed are the solitary-confinement cells, described by inmates as “prisons within prisons.” With loose record-keeping and different standards used by different states, it’s almost impossible to gather reliable nation-wide statistics.
The second method is to give the old, horrific punishment a new, unobjectionable name. Make the torture sound friendly, with fewer syllables and pleasant language. This way, even when abuse is discovered, it appears well-intentioned and humane.
So American prisons rarely punish children with prolonged solitary confinement. Instead, they administer seclusion and protective custody. Prison authorities don’t have to admit that “administrative segregation” is used to discipline children. Just the opposite, actually. It’s all being done “for their own protection.”
Seclusion? Protecting children? Who could argue with that?
For starters, there is Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture. Americans are accustomed to the U.N. investigating incidents of prisoner abuse in other countries — which Mendez has done in faraway places like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But increasingly, his inquiries are focused on American prisons.
Mendez spoke publicly about Bradley Manning’s deplorable treatment in solitary confinement. Now he is calling on the United States to ban isolation for minors, which he considers, “cruel, unusual, and degrading punishment.” It’s a recommendation he shares with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology.
The ACLU report, Growing Up Locked Down, is one of the few detailed, comprehensive examinations available. This devastating and detailed look at solitary confinement for minors has led to this online petition that will be presented to Attorney General Eric Holder in October 2013.
Because the prison system is so opaque, reform has been slow in coming. A congressional hearing on solitary confinement, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) last year, heard testimony from mental health experts, questioned the director of federal prisons, and brought a replica of a solitary confinement cell onto the Senate floor. In recent years, seven states — Maine, Connecticut, West Virginia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alaska — have enacted laws to restrict the use of punitive isolation on young people. As awareness of the magnitude of the problem grows, more reforms are likely to follow.
If we believe that juveniles are inherently less responsible for their actions than adults – and more susceptible to rehabilitation – then it follows that their punishments should be less severe.
Given the severity of the punishment, prohibiting solitary confinement for young people is a first step. The greatest challenge remains demanding greater transparency from a prison system that wields total control over its most vulnerable inmates.
Runs about 13:15 minutes.
Produced, shot, and edited by Todd Krainin.
Still photography of juvenile inmates by Steve Liss. Incidental music by ERH at Freesound.
The National Center on Family Homelessness 2014 report on child homelessness in America finds that 2.5 million children experience homelessness annually. Child homelessness has increased 8% nationally, and in 31 states and the District of Columbia. This historic high represents one in every 30 children in the U.S.
America’s Youngest Outcasts looks at child homelessness nationally and in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, ranks the states from 1 (best) to 50 (worst), and examines causes of child homelessness and the solutions.
I just came across a wonderful documentary called Paycheck to Paycheck, produced by HBO in association with The Shriver Report. HBO is streaming the film this week. Go ahead, the weekend’s coming up – take the time to screen it, because this is a must-watch film. Katrina Gilbert, the young mother profiled in the film, [...]
This week at Media Voices, we have a very interesting paper by Gordon Lafer, The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards 2011-2012, presented at the Economic Policy Institute, tracking a number of new state laws and initiatives that are aimed at undermining the economic power of labor in the United States. It may [...]
Gordon Lafer’s paper published by the Economic Policy Institute tracks a number of new state laws and initiatives aimed at undermining protections for American workers. What does this have to do with children? Four states, Idaho, Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin, actually rolled back child labor laws in 2012. The attacks on the earning power of parents is the primary thing making children vulnerable to entering the workforce at the expense of their schooling.
The temper tantrums of the Party of Me have pushed other issues to one side, issues that desperately need to be addressed. Last weekend saw rallies demanding immigration reform – again – but most journalists were preoccupied with the government shutdown and that story slipped below the fold. It shouldn’t. Immigration, legal and otherwise, is [...]
Part I of a set of research briefs by Children’s Health Watch on food insecurity and its effects on academic attainment and tomorrow’s workforce.
Mr. President, Like millions of Americans, I was touched by your comments on election eve and again during your acceptance speech in Chicago, especially when you spoke of the future you envision for our children. You said “All those kids in inner cities, small farm towns — kids dreaming of becoming scientists or doctors, engineers [...]
Dear Malala, By now you’ve been airlifted to a hospital in the UK, and are, I hope, on the way to recovery. It is almost inconceivable to me that hatred and fear of women can be so strong, that the mere possibility of girls competing on an equal footing with boys could impel someone to [...]
Last weekend, I visited the grandly titled Tunbridge World’s Fair in Vermont, which is hands down my favorite fair, even up against stiff competition from our own local Agricultural Fair on the Vineyard. It was a crystalline September day, clear, warm, golden light. Families strolled through the fairgrounds, enjoying rides, the animals, the fair food. [...]
Food Hardship Rate Continues to Hold Steady, Underscoring Need to Protect SNAP Washington, D.C. – August 22, 2012 – New data released yesterday by the Gallup organization show the food hardship rate for the nation was 18.2 percent during the first six months of 2012. While a slight dip from the 2011 rate of 18.6 [...]
Only one in seven of the low-income students who depended on the National School Lunch Program during the regular 2010-2011 school year received summer meals in July 2011, according to this Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) report.
This past weekend, a three-day sweep by law enforcement rescued 79 children from prostitution. 104 alleged pimps were arrested. More than 2,500 state, local and federal law enforcement officers in 57 cities took part in Operation Cross Country, the culmination of a widespread effort to begin putting a stop to teenage prostitution. The operation, which [...]
This is a beautiful short film by John X. Carey on the plight of undocumented kids who have grown up in America, living day by day with the fear that some casual contact with the police – a traffic ticket or a traffic stop – could lead to deportation to their parent’s country of origin. To his great credit, President Obama recently called a halt to automatic deportation of people brought to this country as children, but we still await a comprehensive immigration reform, which seems unlikely to occur in this political climate.
America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010, the latest report from the National Center for Family Homelessness, documents the numbers of homeless children in every state, their well-being, their risk for child homelessness, and state level planning and policy activities. Using findings from numerous sources that include well-established national data sets as well as our own research, we rank the states in four domains and then develop a composite of these domains to rank the states from 1 (best) to 50 (worst). A page about the District of Columbia is also available.
U. R. Romano, director of Harvest (La Cosecha), speaks at the Tedx Fruitvale: Harvesting Change conference about children working in the fields in U.S. agriculture, and the costs to them in terms of health and educational opportunity, of migrating across the country for months during the picking season.
Children of farmworkers bear a disproportionate burden of health effects from pesticide use in our country. Birth defects, neurological complications, respiratory illness, and cancers have all been linked by peer-reviewed research to pesticide exposure in children. This publication reviews research found on the effects of pesticides on these four areas related to children’s health. The information compiled here is a tool for consumers, policy-makers, health and safety trainers, advocates, those who serve farmworkers, and those who benefit daily from their hard work.
My name is Tianna Gaines-Turner. I’m a proud mother of three children, and I live in the Frankfort neighborhood of Philadelphia. I am writing in response to the New York Times article, “Culture of Poverty Makes a Comeback.” I really don’t agree with this. People don’t choose to live in poverty—it is what it is, [...]
Hundreds of thousands of children work as hired labor in America’s fields and orchards.
These children are among the least protected of all working children. Since 1938, exemptions in
the federal child labor law—the Fair Labor Standards Act, or FLSA—have excluded child agricultural
workers from many of the protections afforded to almost every other working child.
This report produced by the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs May 2007 sets out the current state of children working in agriculture in the United States.