In 12 windowless cells at Mecklenburg County’s Jail North, inmates spend 23 hours alone each day. They’re allowed no visitors, no access to phones, no library books.
Many spend months in the jail awaiting trial. Some are never convicted.
They’re 16 and 17 years old.
President Obama in January banned solitary for youths in federal custody, saying the practice often has “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.” Five months later, North Carolina officials announced a similar ban for youths in the state prison system.
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But in Charlotte, at the sprawling jail off Statesville Road, the practice is still used for dozens of youths who fight, steal or repeatedly break other jail rules.
One thing we have to ask is, ‘Who are we, in Mecklenburg, if we are allowing this to happen?’
Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham, speaking about the practice of putting 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement
Jail officials say they need to separate troublemakers from the general population.
“If a youthful offender is being disruptive or dangerous, we must separate that person from the general population to prevent further escalation of dangerous/disruptive behavior,” Sheriff Irwin Carmichael wrote in a statement.
National experts, though, say that relying heavily on solitary confinement is an outdated approach.
Many states have found ways to eliminate or reduce solitary for teens. They’ve provided more activities in jail to keep youths out of trouble. They’ve created incentives for good behavior and less harmful punishments for rule breakers. And they’ve increased staff and improved training so that detention officers are better equipped to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.
Informed of what is happening at Jail North, the state NAACP said it would conduct a statewide investigation into the use of solitary confinement for juveniles – and will push for an end to the practice.
“We are talking about young people who have not even been convicted. And they’re treated like the worst of criminals,” said the Rev. William Barber, the state NAACP’s president. “ … Getting in trouble doesn’t mean you can be tortured at the hands of the government.”
Several Mecklenburg County commissioners also said they were concerned about putting youths in solitary for long periods.
“One thing we have to ask is, ‘Who are we, in Mecklenburg, if we are allowing this to happen?’ ” said Commissioner Pat Cotham.
Karen Simon, a retired Mecklenburg County jail official, sees no justification for the punishment. Now she’s trying to persuade public officials to put an end to it.
“It’s torture,” Simon said. “It’s abuse. And it’s done at the hands of the government.”
‘Only made me worse’
This year, more than 110 youths have been confined to single-person jail cells in a pod called the Disciplinary Detention Unit (DDU), county sheriff’s data shows.
The teenagers are held in those 70-square-foot concrete cells for 23 hours a day. For one hour on weekdays, they can spend recreation time alone in a walled, 500-square-foot courtyard. On Saturdays and Sundays, they don’t get their usual hour out.
The youths can’t watch television, go to class or talk face-to-face with other inmates. The only phone calls they can make are to their attorneys or bail bondsmen. Their meals are slid through slits in a metal door.
North Carolina is one of just two states that automatically prosecute 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
In one respect, the conditions for these teens are even tougher than those faced by adult inmates confined to solitary in state prisons: The youths have no access to library books – a key survival tool for many inmates in solitary. The youths are allowed to read schoolwork, religious materials and legal paperwork.
Capt. Jeff Eason, who oversees daily operations at Jail North, explains why library books aren’t allowed. “This is disciplinary detention,” he says. “We do not want to make it too comfortable … where you don’t want to leave.”
Davius Boyd was 16 when he first got sent to “the hole.”
In a letter to the Observer, Boyd said that during his year at the jail, he spent a total of 80 days in solitary confinement – and started contemplating suicide.
“I began to suffer depression, showing lots of anger, loneliness,” he wrote.
Boyd, now 20, said he was sent to solitary three times for fighting, and once for cursing at an officer. During his time in isolation, he said, he wasn’t allowed to call home. He also couldn’t draw pictures or read books, he said.
“I couldn’t do anything but push-ups, shadow box, rap – nothing educational,” he wrote from Foothills Correctional Institution in Morganton, where he is now serving his 43-year sentence for rape, robbery and burglary. “Which only made me worse.”
Punished like adults
On average, each youth confined to the DDU this year spent a total of about three weeks there, county data shows. Some were in for less than a day. Eleven were in for more than two months.
Jail officials would not identify the inmates. But the data show that one teen spent most of the past six months in solitary. There, he repeatedly broke sprinkler heads and threw feces, offenses that extended his time in the DDU, Eason says. “His most common reason is he gets bored in there,” Eason says.
North Carolina law mandates that many youthful offenders will be punished as adults. That’s because it is one of just two states that automatically prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. New York is the other.
In Mecklenburg County, those teenagers often wind up at Jail North.
There’s no way the other … youthful offenders can get the help they need if we focus on this one individual.
Capt. Jeff Eason, who oversees Jail North, explaining why he thinks some youths who violate jail rules need to be held in cells for 23 hours a day
Of the 57 youths who were at Jail North on Dec. 9, when an Observer reporter visited, 11 were in the DDU.
Some are sent to one of the 12 cells in the DDU for fighting, others for stealing. Still others are held there for repeated minor infractions, such as cursing or disobeying orders. Getting caught fighting – a common offense – typically earns teens at least 20 days in isolation.
Jail officials in Mecklenburg say they meet stringent standards for the treatment of youths. The jails are accredited by the American Correctional Association and passed a recent ACA audit “with outstanding scores in every category,” a spokesperson noted.
Is it solitary?
Eason, the jail captain, says he doesn’t consider the DDU to be a form of solitary confinement. Youths there get to interact with jail staff members each day, he said.
“It’s the furthest thing in the world from isolation,” Eason said. “This is not solitary confinement.”
But four national experts and child advocates interviewed by the Observer say it is.
Under the United Nations’ rules for the treatment of prisoners, solitary confinement is defined as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”
Told of the rules for inmates at Mecklenburg’s DDU, Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, said: “That is absolutely solitary.”
“It is a condition of torture,” said Mistrett, whose group is pushing to end the prosecution and sentencing of youths as adults. “This is really, really alarming.”
Research has shown that solitary confinement can cause depression, anxiety, hallucinations and rage in adults. A previous Observer investigation found that seven adult N.C. prison inmates spent more than 10 years in solitary – a practice that critics called inhumane.
Two of those inmates were moved to less restrictive housing following questions from the Observer.
Experts say the social and sensory deprivation of solitary confinement can be even harder on youths, who aren’t as equipped to handle the stress.
A 2012 study of youths in solitary confinement, conducted by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, says that because youths are still developing, “traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow.”
Simon, the former Mecklenburg jail official, said that some of the youths she saw seemed wired and aggressive, constantly shouting and kicking their cell doors. Others, she said, were so depressed that they spent all day under their blankets.
“I saw them bundled up in a fetal position, crying oftentimes,” said Simon, who retired from her position as director of inmate programs for the Mecklenburg jails in January, after eight years on the job.
Simon recently spoke at two Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners meetings about why she believes the practice needs to stop. She says she plans to keep speaking out.
I saw them bundled up in a fetal position, crying often times.
Karen Simon, a retired Mecklenburg County jail official, describing some of the 16- and 17-year-olds who were held in solitary confinement at Jail North
In their report about youths in solitary in other states, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch interviewed and corresponded with 127 youths under age 18 who were held in isolation.
“Many of the young people interviewed spoke in harrowing detail about struggling with ... serious mental health problems during their time in solitary,” the report states. Those included thoughts of self-harm, hallucinations and uncontrollable anger or rage.
The experience drives some youths to desperate acts. A 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study found that more than half of youths who take their own lives in juvenile facilities do so while isolated in their rooms.
At the isolation units inside Jail North, 16 youths were put on suicide watch or suicide precautions during the one-year period that ended Dec. 15, according to the sheriff’s office. Those teens were in the DDU and the Administrative Detention Unit, another segregation pod where inmates are allowed to use the telephone and watch television when they are out of their cells.
No agency tracks how many youths are housed in solitary confinement in North Carolina or across the nation. But one U.S. Department of Justice study estimated that 24 percent of youths in custody nationally – or more than 20,000 juveniles – had been punished with solitary confinement in 2003.
A number of groups nationwide are pushing for a ban on the practice, calling it a violation of human rights.
In its report, entitled “Growing Up Locked Down,” the ACLU and Human Rights Watch called solitary confinement for youths “an experience of unquestionable cruelty.”
If you locked your 16-year-old in a closet for two weeks, you’d be arrested for child abuse.
Jean Casella, co-director of Solitary Watch, a watchdog group that disseminates information about solitary confinement
Jean Casella, co-director of Solitary Watch, agrees.
“If you locked your 16-year-old in a closet for two weeks, you’d be arrested for child abuse,” said Casella, whose watchdog group disseminates information about solitary confinement.
Under a leading set of national standards for managing youth in correctional facilities, young inmates should be isolated for no more than four hours – and never for purposes of punishment. The standards, developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, say that youths should only be held in isolation when they behave in a way that endangers themselves or others.
Some states say they are seeing a benefit as they move away from the practice of holding youths in solitary: It has made their detention centers safer.
From 2014 to 2015, seclusion hours in Ohio’s juvenile correctional facilities were reduced by 89 percent. Violent acts, meanwhile, dropped by 22 percent, according to Harvey Reed, director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services. In a 2015 article for Corrections Today, Reed noted that youths in solitary have a tendency to want revenge and to act out in anger.
Mecklenburg Public Defender Kevin Tully says that the public pays a price when youths are held in solitary. They may develop deeper psychological problems, which can make it harder for them to adjust to society after they’re released.
“If the goal is to make the community safer,” Tully says, “this practice is not only missing the mark, I can guarantee you it’s having the opposite effect.”
Database Editor Gavin Off contributed to this story.
Statement of Mecklenburg Sheriff Irwin Carmichael
As Mecklenburg County Sheriff, I am proud of the Mecklenburg County Jail, our officers and civilians who work with the Youthful Offender population. Not only is our jail ACA certified and continues to meet all ACA accreditation standards, we have the only high school in the state of North Carolina for Youthful Offenders. The 16 and 17 year olds who come in to our custody because of mistakes they’ve made have a chance to address their mistakes. Other Youthful Offenders, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ staff, volunteers and MCSO staff should and expect to feel safe while inside our facilities. It is my responsibility as Sheriff to make sure everyone in our facilities, to the extent possible, remains safe at all times. Therefore, if a Youthful Offender is being disruptive or dangerous, we must separate that person from the general population to prevent further escalation of dangerous/disruptive behavior, including prevention of retaliatory behavior by other Youthful Offenders against the disruptive Youthful Offender. Our Disciplinary Detention Units allow us to do that and we do so in compliance with all laws applicable to our facilities as well as within all ACA guidelines. My hope, as Sheriff, is to show the Youthful Offenders who find themselves at Jail North an alternative path, a better way. That’s why we offer high school in our jail and dozens of other programs aimed at getting our young people back on the right track so they don’t face future incarcerations.