Should Charlotte teens be held in solitary confinement as they await trial?

Karen Simon talks about the effects of solitary confinement

Karen Simon talks about the effects of solitary confinement she has witnessed involving 16-and-17-year-olds. She is a former jail official for Mecklenburg County, and has spoken out against the use of solitary confinement for this age group. Altho
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Karen Simon talks about the effects of solitary confinement she has witnessed involving 16-and-17-year-olds. She is a former jail official for Mecklenburg County, and has spoken out against the use of solitary confinement for this age group. Altho

The N.C. ACLU has concluded that jailers in Mecklenburg County place 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement too frequently and for too long – a practice that it says is causing “permanent damage” to teens.

In a 10-page report sent this week to Sheriff Irwin Carmichael, attorneys for the ACLU asserted that the system is “plagued by arbitrary standards and insufficient oversight that places young people in solitary confinement for vague and minor offenses.”

A Charlotte Observer story published in December showed that county sheriff’s deputies routinely hold 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement – a psychologically damaging punishment that human rights experts say often amounts to torture.

Last year, more than 110 Mecklenburg youths spent time in solitary, confined to 70-square-foot concrete cells at Jail North, off Statesville Road. There, they spent 23 hours alone in their cells each day, with no access to phones, library books or visitors. Many of those teens spend months in the jail awaiting trial, the Observer found. Some are never convicted.

The county sheriff’s office refused to comment on the ACLU’s report. But jail officials previously told the Observer they need to separate troublemakers from the general population.

“Inmates who engage in unlawful or inappropriate behavior must be managed and in some cases, removed from the general population for the protection of themselves, other inmates and my staff,” Carmichael wrote in a statement to the Observer earlier this year.

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.

A new N.C. bill would change that. Under that bill, introduced Wednesday by Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Henderson County Republican, 16- and 17-year-olds who commit certain crimes would be tried as juveniles – not as adults.

But human rights activists have made progress in their nationwide push to end solitary for youths. President Barack Obama last year banned solitary confinement 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.

Studies have shown that solitary confinement can cause or worsen mental illness. Experts say the social and sensory deprivation of solitary can be even harder on youths, who aren’t as equipped to handle the stress.

The ACLU based its report on information that it gathered as part of a public records request. Among the report’s conclusions:

▪ The county jail is clearly holding youths in solitary confinement – despite claims to the contrary by sheriff’s officials. The ACLU noted that teenagers as young as 16 are deprived of family visits, with no access to the services needed for their development and rehabilitation.

▪ Teens are placed in isolation not only for violent acts, but for offenses as minor as using profanity or talking loudly. More than 85 offenses – including kicking on a cell door, lying to staff and failing to keep a prison pod sanitary – can land a young inmate in solitary, the ACLU says.

▪ The system lacks safeguards to ensure that the most vulnerable youths are not placed in solitary – and that the practice is used only as a last resort. The ACLU said it saw no records to suggest that jail officials provide mental health screening to juveniles before sending them to solitary.

Sheriff: Teens treated fairly

Sheriff’s officials have disputed that the youths held in their cells for 23 hours a day are in solitary confinement. At the Disciplinary Detention Unit, the most restrictive housing unit for young inmates, officers have frequent interaction with each prisoner, they say.

In his statement earlier this year, Carmichael also said that juveniles placed in the DDU have an opportunity to appeal their punishment to an administrative hearing officer and to an administrative sergeant at the jail.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Pat Cotham, who visited the DDU in December, said the ACLU’s findings validated what she observed. She said she worries that such punishment will leave many young people with long-lasting scars.

“How can this be right?” Cotham asked. “… These are our kids. They’re going to be back in our schools. And what kind of shape will they be in?”

On average, each youth confined last year to the DDU 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.

The ACLU recommended numerous changes to better protect juveniles. Among other things, it urged jail officials to stop putting youths in solitary for more than four hours, and to ensure that they have access to visits, phone calls and services even when they are in lock-up.

The group also recommended that the sheriff’s office train jail staff to use alternative disciplinary methods – and that it revise policies to ensure that teens aren’t placed in solitary until less-restrictive options have been exhausted.

“Unless the Mecklenburg County jail takes immediate steps to eliminate this practice … it will continue to cause permanent damage to youth, setting them up to be life-long recidivists while wasting taxpayer funds, in addition to exposing the jail to potential legal liability,” reads the report from ACLU legal director Chris Brook and staff attorney Irena Como.

‘Bundled up in a fetal position’

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.

The head of the North Carolina NAACP said in December that his organization will conduct a statewide investigation into the use of solitary confinement for juveniles – and will push for an end to the practice.

Last year, about 89 percent of the youths who did time in the most restrictive solitary unit were African-American, county sheriff’s data shows. About 73 percent of all the youths booked in the jail last year were African-American.

At the isolation units inside Jail North, 16 youths were put on suicide watch or suicide precautions last year, 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.

Karen Simon retired from her position as director of inmate programs for the county jails last year, after eight years on the job. She said that some of the youths she saw in solitary 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,” she said.

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

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