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NAACP: Stop putting teens in solitary confinement

When youths in Mecklenburg’s Jail North break the rules, they are sometimes forced to spend 23 hours a day in 70-square-foot cells like this one.
When youths in Mecklenburg’s Jail North break the rules, they are sometimes forced to spend 23 hours a day in 70-square-foot cells like this one. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

The head of the North Carolina NAACP said his organization will 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.”

Barber’s comments come in response to Charlotte Observer stories this week showing that more than 110 juveniles were held in solitary confinement at Mecklenburg County’s Jail North in 2016 as they awaited trial. The 16- and 17-year-olds spend 23 hours alone in their cells as punishment for fighting, stealing or breaking other jail rules. They are allowed no visitors, no phone calls and no library books.

Many spend months in the jail awaiting trial. Some are never convicted.

We are talking about young people who have not even been convicted. And they’re treated like the worst of criminals.

Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP

Research has shown that solitary confinement can cause depression, anxiety, hallucinations and rage in adults. And experts say the experience can be even harder on youths, who don’t have the same psychological tools to cope with the stress.

President Obama in January banned solitary for youths in federal custody. Five months later, North Carolina officials announced a similar ban in the state prison system.

But in some county jails – including Jail North in Charlotte, the jail in downtown Raleigh and the High Point Detention Center – 16- and 17-year-olds who violate rules are still held in solitary confinement.

Jail officials in Mecklenburg County 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.

But national experts say that relying heavily on solitary confinement is an outdated approach. Many states have found ways to eliminate or reduce solitary for teens.

Barber says he’d like to learn, among other things, how widespread the practice is in North Carolina, the races of those detained and the crimes they’ve been charged with.

“We would like to see this injustice stopped,” Barber said. “…This is going to become a major pillar in our criminal justice reform agenda.”

‘National disgrace’

Karen Simon, a retired Mecklenburg County jail official who is speaking out about the practice, said that about 90 percent of the juvenile inmates she saw in the isolation units at Jail North were African American.

A number of Mecklenburg County commissioners are also raising concerns about the practice. After learning about what was happening at Jail North, Commissioner Pat Cotham asked to see the unit where youths are held in solitary. One of the youths was on suicide watch, she said.

Cotham said she walked into an empty cell and asked a sheriff’s deputy to close the door for a few moments so she could better understand the experience.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t imagine being here 24 hours,’ ” Cotham said.

On average, each youth confined to the solitary unit 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.

Many states have reduced or ended their use of solitary for youths. And some say that has made their detention centers safer.

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.

Barber said the NAACP will continue to lobby lawmakers to raise the age at which people can be prosecuted as adults.

“It’s a national disgrace … that out of 50 states, we’re the only two that have given up on our youth,” Barber said.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

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