Despair – that is what I felt for the first time in my life when I spent time with 16- and 17-year-old boys at Mecklenburg County’s Jail North.
Each boy was confined to a small cell for 23 hours a day without visitors, mail, library books, etc. All of them were awaiting trial; some could be found innocent. I am not new to going to prisons and jails – I have done it many times. But seeing children locked-up in solitary confinement is not something that I will ever accept as normal.
I talked through a metal door to Dominique, Gabriel, Thomas, Jaziyah and others. I tried to offer them hope of better days ahead but I saw hopelessness and trauma on their faces through the narrow glass window. Several said they wanted to talk to their moms. One boy said I shook his hand at his graduation last May and another boy was on “suicide watch.” I told them I would pray for them. Surely these boys brought joy to their parents when they were born. The joy has vanished and the harsh reality of the present was overwhelming. They had violated a rule (disobedience, cursing, fighting, etc.) and now they were alone in a cell for days to weeks.
I asked the deputy if I could go into one of the empty cells. We entered the cell and I asked him to leave and shut the door. It slammed shut with the harshest sound that is heard only in a jail. I was alone and miserable. I could not stand it and asked that the door be opened. When I left, I had to sit in my car and “collect myself.” I had just witnessed kids in solitary confinement. How can this be OK? It felt so wrong.
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I admit, I could not work in law enforcement and I admire people who do. I have always supported Mecklenburg Sheriff Irwin Carmichael and I have always been proud of inmate programs for youth so they can graduate high school. Adult inmates have always told me they are treated with respect and the jail is accredited with high marks. But I am very troubled with children in this harsh solitary environment.
Data show that solitary confinement can be damaging to teens and adults. President Obama said, “It does not make us safer. It is an affront to our common humanity.” Child psychologists say this type of incarceration is destructive and can have life-long repercussions.
Most inmates eventually will be released and will return to their hometowns. We need them to return whole and rehabilitated. We don’t want them to return as broken teenagers with psychological scars that will prevent them from becoming responsible adults.
Even though the state of North Carolina classifies 16- and 17-year-olds as “adults” in the criminal justice system, we all know they are still children. I hope and pray that one day soon this intensive confinement of teenagers will end.
Pat Cotham is a Mecklenburg County commissioner at-large.