Skip to content Skip to footer

For Advocates, Push to End Solitary Confinement in Prison Only Begins With Youth Isolation

The call to end youth solitary confinement has been growing louder. Will it extend to those in prison over 18?

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

DeAngelo Cortijo was 11 years old when he locked himself in a group home van. For that, he was sent to a juvenile prison in San Francisco. There, he got into a fight and was kept in his room for four days. Locking a person in a room or cell is frequently referred to as isolation, isolated confinement or solitary confinement. That was his first time. But it wasn’t his only time.

During the seven years he spent in and out of California’s juvenile legal system, Cortijo also spent increasing amounts of time in isolation. When he was 13, he recalled, he spent four or five months confined to his room for 23 hours a day. He was supposed to be allowed out of his room for half an hour at the start of each day and for half an hour at the end of the day, but most days, he remained locked in for the full 24 hours.

Being locked in his room did not protect Cortijo from physical violence. Once, he recalls, a guard asked him for his lunch tray. “He was being very disrespectful about it,” Cortijo said. “I told him to talk to me with more respect.” In response, the guard, along with several other staff members, entered Cortijo’s cell and “began punching me and kicking me. They cuffed my left wrist to my right ankle, stripped all the clothes off my back, cut my pants off me, left me naked in my cell, took everything out of my room, turned the fluorescent lights on high and left me on the cement floor for about an hour and a half.” Cortijo was 14 years old.

“We began looking at the laws and realized there was no uniform definition around the use of solitary confinement.”

At age 17, he spent seven and a half months in isolation. After the first couple of days, he said, “everything just turned into one. I would wake up and there would be white walls everywhere and a gray toilet. I’d be highly depressed.” He remembered lying on his bed for three or four hours, thinking about all the different ways he could end his life. Sometimes he felt extreme rage, and banged and kicked at the door in the hopes that someone would talk to him; sometimes, he would cover the lights and lay in his bed for hours.

Cortijo’s experience is far from rare. Court documents reported 249 uses of solitary confinement at five juvenile prisons in California during a 14-week period in 2011.

California’s Senate Bill 124, which passed the State Senate on June 2, would change that practice, drastically curtailing the use of isolation in the state’s juvenile prison system. SB124 is one of several efforts across the nation focused on ending the placement of children in extreme isolation.

The bill is, in part, a result of research and publicity about the effects of solitary confinement particularly on the still-developing brain of adolescents and teenagers. In children and adults, the effects of solitary confinement, also referred to as isolated confinement or isolation, often include depression, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, paranoia, anxiety and anger. In adolescents, who are still developing socially, psychologically and neurologically, the results can be particularly devastating. One study found that, among those who died by suicide in juvenile prisons, half occurred in solitary confinement, and 62 percent had a history of being in isolation.

Since 2012, eight states have prohibited placing youth in solitary for punitive reasons. In May 2015, a federal judge approved new rules limiting the use of isolation in Illinois’ juvenile prisons. In New York City, the Board of Correction, which makes rules governing the city’s jail system, voted to end solitary for 16- and 17-year-olds and to develop alternatives to solitary for people ages 18 to 21. In New York State, two class-action lawsuits have pushed the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision into settlement agreements requiring that, even in isolation, 16- and 17-year-olds be allowed out of their cells for five to six hours on weekdays and for two hours on weekends. On May 19, 2015, in response to a lawsuit, California’s Contra Costa County Probation Department agreed to a settlement ending solitary confinement in its juvenile hall.

These efforts come after years of advocacy. In California, the impetus for SB124 began in 2011, when several family members contacted the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights about their children held in youth prisons. One mother told advocates about her son, who had attempted suicide six or seven times while in a youth prison. Each time, the boy was placed in solitary confinement.

“We began looking at the laws that were in place and realized there was no uniform definition around the use of solitary confinement,” said Jennifer Kim, director of programs at the Ella Baker Center. Different terminology – such as “secure housing unit” and “behavior treatment program” – also made it difficult for advocates and family members to talk about their children’s experiences of being locked in their rooms 23 hours a day without programs or services. The following year, in 2012, the Center brought the issue to the attention of State Sen. Leland Yee, who, Kim said, was horrified at the practice and introduced SB1363. The bill drew fire from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents guards in juvenile and adult prisons, as well as the Chief Probation Officers of California, the California Probation, Parole and Correctional Association, and the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

In January 2015, State Sen. Mark Leno introduced the bill again, this time as SB124. “This is an opportunity for California to be proactive rather than reactive,” Kim said. “We don’t want a young person dying in isolation to be the impetus for the legislature to act.”

Limiting Teens in Isolation Elsewhere

As advocates in California are learning, the fight to limit solitary – for youth or adults – often requires years of organizing, including advocacy by those who have experienced it firsthand. Johnny Perez, who has spent time in isolation in New York prisons, is one of those advocates. Though Perez was placed in solitary as both a teenager and an adult, all of the occurrences took place in adult facilities. New York is one of two states that automatically charge people 16 and over as adults.

Shortly after he arrived at Rikers Island, New York City’s island jail complex, Perez got into a fight when he tried to use a gang-controlled phone. He was sent to isolation for 60 days. There, he said, he lost all sense of time. When it got dark, he tried to go to sleep. But the cell was cold and the one thin blanket was little help. He remembers feeling sad and helpless. He spent a lot of time crying. “My self-esteem took a hit,” he told Truthout. “After a while, you start to think, ‘Wow, maybe I really am a bad person. Maybe I do deserve to be here.'” He was 16 years old.

An officer sat outside their cells and was able to watch them dress, undress or go to the bathroom.

Perez spent eight months on Rikers before being released. Four years later, he was back at Rikers where he spent eight months in isolation. “It affects the value that you see in yourself. It teaches you to shut your emotions down, but what you’re doing is keeping everything inside.” Comparing his two experiences, he says, “It’s hard when you’re younger. You’re not understanding what’s going on. If someone walks by your cell and doesn’t talk to you and you want to talk to them, you think it’s something about you. Especially if they do it over and over. As a youngster, I internalized it and thought there was something wrong with me.” In contrast, he said, “As an adult, you don’t internalize it. You know, It’s not me; it’s you. You’re the problem.

Trauma stemming from isolation doesn’t stop once a teenager hits 18. “Lilia” is now a writer and activist with the HerStory Writers Workshop, which conducts writing workshops at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility, a local jail on Long Island, New York. She herself experienced the devastating effects of solitary when, at 19, she was placed in the jail’s protective custody.

“The way that they have the cells set up is that anyone who’s either in isolated confinement or protective custody, it’s the same amount of time in lock,” she told Truthout. Each person spent 22 hours in her cell. The cells in the jail’s isolation unit each had three solid walls and one “wall” that was a row of bars facing the jail’s corridor. For the women inside, the lack of a fourth wall also meant a lack of privacy. An officer sat outside their cells and was able to watch them dress, undress or go to the bathroom. “There was always an officer in front of you,” she said. The officer was usually a man.

Being in protective custody also didn’t “protect” anyone from the violence of the jail, Lilia recalled. “They would do random cell searches for drugs and things that you shouldn’t have,” she said. “The way in which they went about it was that they would bring in a group of very large officers who were in combat gear from head to toe with black masks over their face, helmets – riot gear really was what it was. They would come marching in and they would, in five minutes, ransack everybody’s individual cells. I specifically remember seeing peanut butter and jelly go flying across the wall, hitting the other wall and sliding down.”

It wasn’t only food and inanimate objects that were subject to violence. The unit also housed women with severe mental illnesses. Lilia remembers a woman who talked, paced and shouted incessantly from her cell. “They came into her cell in riot gear,” she said. “From the sounds that I heard and the force of them, I’m assuming holding her down. It was terrible to even hear. She lay in her cell for two days after that, totally quiet and sedated.” When the woman left her cell, she was black and blue.

No one ever told Lilia why she was in isolation. “I never knew to ask,” she said. “I had never been in jail or prison before. For half of those six months, I didn’t know there were other units that were run differently. I just thought everyone was in isolated confinement or, as they would say, protective custody. The level of understanding was just not there.”

Nearly 20 years later, that experience still affects her. “You internalize the fear in a very deep way,” she said. “If I’m ever locked in a small area or confronted with officers in riot gear, it definitely brings up post-traumatic stress disorder. I have to say to myself, ‘This is not jail. They’re not going to do anything to me.’ There was also the impending threat that your life might have been at risk. Whether it was perceived or real, it was definitely palpable.”

They had no contact with other people. They were deprived of education, mental health services and, often, even something to read.

In some states, litigation has forced changes. Adam Schwartz is the senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. In 2012, after investigating conditions in the state’s juvenile prisons and interviewing youth, the ACLU filed R.J. v. Jones, a civil rights class-action lawsuit around conditions and services in youth prisons. Four years ago, Schwartz explained, youth confined by the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice were placed in isolation for days – or in some cases, weeks – at a time. They had no contact with other people. They were deprived of education, mental health services and, often, even something to read. The isolation induces further anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s fundamentally counter-therapeutic and destructive,” he said. Moreover, solitary confinement was often used as a form of punishment.

Under a settlement agreement, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice agreed to change its policies around solitary confinement. On April 24, 2015, a federal judge approved the new policies, under which, Schwartz explained, isolation cannot be used specifically to punish a youth for breaking a rule. Instead, isolation can only be used temporarily to remove a person from the immediate situation. The policies also impose time limits if a youth is separated from others for exhibiting aggressive or violent behavior (24 hours maximum), disruptive behavior (four hours maximum), for administrative reasons (72 hours maximum) or because of an investigation (four days). In addition, the new rules require that any youth confined for 24 hours or more must spend eight hours out of their cell each day in the company of staff members and have the ability to talk to a staff member. They also will no longer be excluded from programming, such as school.

In 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Cardozo School of Law filed Peoples v. Fischer, challenging solitary confinement practices in the adult prison system. The following year, the suit was expanded to a class action, encompassing not only the plaintiffs, but those in similar situations. In February 2014, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) agreed to an interim stipulation, including a requirement that 16- and 17-year-olds be allowed out of their cell five hours daily on weekdays and that a separate disciplinary confinement unit be created for 16- and 17-year-old boys. On weekends, however, youth can still be confined to their cells for 23 to 24 hours.

That same year, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York filed Cookhorne v. Fischer, challenging DOCCS policies around 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary. In fall 2014, DOCCS entered a settlement agreement, which expanded the amount of time out-of-cell for 16- and 17-year-olds to six hours on weekdays. In addition, four of those six hours had to be for educational or other programming unless the youth was deemed a risk to himself or others. Every youth in solitary had to be offered two hours of recreation every day. Cookhorne also specifically required that 16- and 17-year-old girls in isolation be allowed the same opportunities as boys in isolation.

“Solitary Confinement Is Torture for All People”

Scott Paltrowitz, the associate director of the Prison Visiting Project of the Correctional Association of New York and a member of the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, monitors prison conditions statewide. He notes that practice can often be different than written policy. “In practice, many people in SHU [secure housing unit] often do not go out to recreation due to a variety of reasons and thus are held in solitary confinement 24 hours a day,” he told Truthout. “Fear of a confrontation with security staff on the way to recreation, cold or inclement weather without proper clothing, the fact that the recreation itself involves just being alone in a cage without any equipment, and simply being denied the opportunity by staff are some common reasons people do not participate.”

One of the prisons he has visited is Greene Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in which the median age is 22. Many sent to Greene are between the ages of 16 and 21. Greene is also one of eight New York State prisons with an S-Block or SHU200, a solitary confinement unit of 200 beds in 100 cells.

“Solitary confinement is torture for all people.”

Younger people are disproportionately sent to the SHU, Paltrowitz told Truthout. In October 2014, 70 percent of the 185 people in Greene’s S-Block were under 30. The median age of a person confined in S-Block was 24. In addition, people in the S-Block were disproportionately people of Solitary confinement is torture for all people,” said Paltrowitz, noting that the UN special rapporteur on torture has stated that no person should be subjected to isolation for 15 days or more because of its devastating mental, physical and psychological effects. “We believe that no people should be subjected to the torture of solitary.”

Paltrowitz and others are advocating for the HALT Solitary Act to limit solitary to 15 days regardless of age. It would also end the practice altogether for people ages 21 and younger. Under the act, Paltrowitz explained, after spending 15 days in solitary, people would be sent to a residential rehabilitation unit (RRU) where they would be allowed out of their cell for seven hours each day. Six of those hours would be spent in programs in congregate settings – in other words, not just exercising in a solitary cage or sitting in an empty classroom.

Johnny Perez is now an adult, and works as the safe re-entry advocate at the Urban Justice Center in New York City. He’s also working to ensure that no one ever has to go through a similar experience. In September 2014, the New York City Department of Correction ended the practice of placing teenagers under 18 in solitary. In January 2015, one month after hearing approximately six hours of testimony from Perez and many others, the Board of Correction unanimously voted to phase out solitary for people ages 21 and younger in all New York City jails. The phaseout remains contingent on funding for alternative programming.

In California, advocates are hopeful that youth solitary will end soon. Cortijo is now 21, a college student and juvenile justice advocate. He has testified about his experiences before the Senate Public Safety Committee to emphasize SB124’s urgency. Dredging up these memories is painful, he says, but he is committed to speaking about them publicly.

“I keep in mind I’m doing it for the tens of thousands of youth,” Cortijo said. “It’s my life goal to help youth who don’t have a voice – whether in the foster care or juvenile justice system. They should have the chance to live a normal life and not have to spend life in prison or be dead or be on probation.”

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.