A number of Mecklenburg County commissioners are voicing concerns about the sheriff’s practice of putting 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement for long periods – and some say it should end.
In interviews with the Observer, Republican Bill James and Democrats George Dunlap, Pat Cotham and Trevor Fuller all raised questions about keeping youths in solitary confinement for days, weeks or months at a time.
Dunlap said he’s going to ask county staff to put the issue on the agenda for next month’s commissioners’ retreat.
After an Observer reporter asked for her thoughts, Cotham visited the Disciplinary Detention Unit at Jail North, where juveniles who fight, steal or break other rules are locked alone in their cells for 23 hours a day.
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Those youths are allowed no visitors, no access to phones and no library books. On average, the teens are kept in solitary for about three weeks. All have been charged with crimes, but none have been convicted.
In a Facebook post about her visit, Cotham said she saw one youth who, during the hour out of his cell, was kept in handcuffs. Another, she said, was on suicide watch.
Cotham said she doesn’t believe it’s appropriate to lock 16- and 17-year-olds alone in their cells for more than a few hours. When youths cause trouble, it’s important to find out whether they have underlying psychological problems that contributed, she said.
“Just locking them up in a cell, what does that solve?” Cotham asked. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
There's no rehabilitative value at all. What we do by continuing with that practice is go against everything the research tells us.
Mecklenburg County commissioner George Dunlap, speaking about the practice of putting 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement
Sheriff Irwin Carmichael defends the practice, saying jailers need to separate dangerous and disruptive inmates from others for safety.
Dunlap, who serves as vice chair of the juvenile justice subcommittee for the National Association of Counties, said research shows that solitary confinement tends to turn youths into more hardened criminals.
“There's no rehabilitative value at all,” said Dunlap, a former police officer. “What we do by continuing with that practice is go against everything the research tells us.”
James said he understands the need to separate troublemakers from other inmates. Still, he said, it’s important not to keep them in solitary so long that it exacerbates mental health problems.
Research has shown that solitary confinement can cause depression, anxiety, hallucinations and rage in adults. Experts say the experience can be even harder on youths.
“If you’re a parent, you send your kid to his room for a few hours,” James said. “But I’d never send my kid to his room for 19 days.”
James noted that the county’s elected sheriff runs the jails, and that the commissioners cannot tell him what to do. But if the sheriff’s office needs additional public money to develop an alternative to the current system, James said he’d be “open to talk about it.”
North Carolina is one of just two states that automatically prosecutes 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.
Juvenile facilities are designed to give youths the education and counseling they need to rehabilitate themselves. But when youths are prosecuted as adults, they are likely to be held in jails or prisons where there is less emphasis on rehabilitation – and more on punishment. They’re also more likely to endure harmful experiences like solitary confinement.
Fuller says that he believes punishing 16- and 17-year-olds as adults is “problematic.”
“It focuses too much on retribution and punishment – and not enough on helping them rehabilitate,” he said.
Fuller, who serves on the board of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, says he will push to make that issue one of the association’s legislative goals.