What would you call it if you were being held alone in a windowless, 10x7 cement jail cell for 23 hours a day, enjoying little human interaction and eating meals guards slid through a slit in the metal door?
Most of us would call that solitary confinement. Not the Mecklenburg Sheriff’s Office. It calls the practice “disciplinary detention” when applied to 16- and 17-year-old inmates who break rules at its Jail North facility off Statesville Avenue.
“It’s the furthest thing in the world from isolation,” Capt. Jeff Eason, who oversees daily operations at Jail North, told the Observer’s Ames Alexander recently. “This is not solitary confinement.”
Of course it is. In a way, it’s even more draconian than solitary confinement in the state prison system. At least the adult offenders there get access to library books, a key tool for fighting off the boredom and depression such isolation invites.
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More than 110 youths were confined in the Disciplinary Detention unit last year. Many were there for fighting, Alexander reported. But others went there for repeat infractions as minor as cursing or disobeying orders.
We certainly understand that some of the most unruly young inmates might occasionally need to be segregated from the general population for safety purposes.
But if it must happen, such isolation for teenagers should last hours or a day or two, not Jail North’s average of three weeks. Alexander reported that one teen spent most of the past six months there, in part because he extended his time there by breaking sprinkler heads and throwing feces.
North Carolina last year banned solitary confinement for youths in the state prison system, not long after President Barack Obama barred it for youths in federal custody. The practice, as Obama rightly noted, has “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.”
Given that state and federal officials refuse to put convicted teen criminals in solitary confinement, we find it dismaying that Sheriff Irwin Carmichael would do so with Mecklenburg’s teen inmates, some of whom could end up acquitted of their accused crimes.
Mecklenburg County commissioners such as Pat Cotham and George Dunlap are right to press for change. Dunlap, a former police officer, noted that solitary confinement tends to turn youths into more hardened criminals as adults. Teenagers likely wouldn’t even be in adult facilities such as Jail North if our state would stop prosecuting 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. North Carolina and New York are the only states that do.
We don’t doubt that the sheriff and his staff care about some of the teens in their custody. They run the state’s only high school serving youthful offenders.
And their disciplinary detention protocol didn’t stop their jails from scoring well on a recent accreditation agency audit.
But other states have cut down on solitary confinement by rethinking incentives for good behavior, and by improving staff training on de-escalation techniques.
Carmichael should give stronger consideration to such measures, and eliminate the use of solitary confinement for teens.