Despite Ban, New York City Still Subjecting Incarcerated Youth to Torture

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Three years ago, New York City banned solitary confinement for prisoners younger than 22—but today, the city is still finding a way to subject young people to this completely inhumane confinement.

Internationally, human rights groups have condemned solitary confinement as torture. Psychologists say the effects on young people are particularly devastating because the brains of adolescents are undergoing major structural growth. Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian points out that “even a few days of solitary confinement will predictably shift the EEG pattern towards an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium.” This can literally drive an adult insane. For juveniles it is even more shattering.

But New York City has found an end run around its own supposed ban on solitary confinement of youths—transferring many young prisoners to facilities that don’t have this restriction. Such transfers have increased since 2015, and this year alone, at least 10 youths were transferred and eight ended up in solitary confinement in an upstate jail.

The ban came after damning exposure of what was happening to youths in solitary confinement on Rikers Island—the huge New York City jail that holds an average of 14,000 prisoners every day, overwhelmingly Black and Latino, hundreds of them teenagers, and over 40 percent suffering from diagnosed mental illnesses. One of the most horrific cases was Kalief Browder, who in 2010, at the age of 16, ended up on Rikers after being accused of stealing a backpack. Browder spent three years on Rikers waiting for trial, much of it in solitary confinement. Prosecutors eventually had to release him because of lack of evidence. Then two years later, Browder committed suicide—the result of having suffered mental and physical abuse in prison.

Mr. “Reform” de Blasio and other Democrats like to paint themselves as trying to do something about mass incarceration. First, Bill Clinton presided over the “war on drugs” which condemned so many Black and Latino people to decades, if not life, in prison—and accelerated the phenomenon of mass incarceration. Obama did absolutely nothing to address mass incarceration, while symbolically pardoning a few people at the end of his second term. He contributed to the continued demonization of Black youth, starting with his lecturing Black youth to “pull their pants up” and advocating the politics of personal responsibility and declaring how there are “no more excuses” (See “Barack [and Michelle] Obama, of All People, Did More Harm to Black People Over the Last Eight Years”). On the related horror of police killings of Black and Latino youths, his Department of Justice brought no criminal charges against the police who murdered Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and the many, many others who were killed by cops during his administration.

Now, Mayor Bill de Blasio—who says jail reforms have been partly inspired by what happened to Kalief Browder—is defending how the city is sending youths to face the same horrific conditions that led to the Browder’s death.

Steven Espinal, 19 years old, said that after he was transferred out of Rikers, guards at the new prison beat him so badly when he arrived that he lost hearing in one ear and passed blood in his urine. According to Espinal, as the guards beat him they kept saying, “This ain’t New York City. We do what we want.” After being hospitalized, Espinal was sentenced to 600 days in solitary confinement. (New York Times, July 22, 2018)

This isn’t just happening in New York. In fact, teenagers, even very young kids, are put in solitary confinement throughout the United States.

Author Nell Bernstein, who has interviewed hundreds of incarcerated youths, says about a third of young people locked up are put in solitary confinement. She said, “It’s called ‘ad seg,’ or ‘special housing unit’—or, my personal favorite, ‘reflection cottages.’ But, really, what happens—what the kids described to me was, for instance, a girl asserts that she’s feeling suicidal. The equivalent of a SWAT team rushes into her cell, strips her naked and throws her into an even more barren cell with only, like, a single, rough blanket to cover her. It’s used to respond to suicide threats. It’s used as punishment for aggressors. It’s used to protect those who are imposed upon by those aggressors. It can be used because there’s a shortage of teachers, and they can’t let the kids out of their rooms.... Fifteen hours is the maximum for adults under their standards. But I met kids who’d been in solitary for months.” (NPR, Fresh Air, June 4, 2014)

What kind of a fucked-up system puts youth in such horrendous, inhumane conditions? A system that has no future for millions of youth. A system with white supremacy built into the very marrow of its bones—that subjects especially Black and Latino youth to police murder and brutality, puts them in impoverished situations and locks them up away for decades. There are millions of reasons—but this alone is argument enough to sweep this system off the face of this planet.

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See also:

Kalief Browder

Statement by Carl Dix
Kalief Browder's Life Was Stolen By This System

June 11, 2015

Read more.


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