Mecklenburg eases restrictions on teens in jail. It’s not enough, critics say

The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office says it has eased restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds who are held in solitary confinement at Jail North.

For years, youths who fought, stole or broke other jail rules were held alone in windowless cells for 23 hours a day, with no access to phones, visitors or library books.

But the Sheriff’s Office told the Observer that on weekdays, it has begun letting those youthful offenders out of their cells for four hours each weekday, instead of one. That exceeds standards set by the American Correctional Association, the Sheriff’s Office said in an email.

On Saturdays and Sundays, the youthful offenders do not get to leave their cells, the Sheriff’s Office said.

The Sheriff’s Office said it also plans to ease restrictions on adult inmates in solitary confinement, letting them out of their cells for at least two hours a day.

In 2016, President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for youths in federal custody, saying the practice often has “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.” North Carolina officials announced a similar ban for youths in the state prison system the same year.

But in a 2016 story, the Observer reported that the practice is still used in Mecklenburg County.

Each year, dozens of 16- and 17-year-olds are confined to single-person jail cells in a pod called the Disciplinary Detention Unit (DDU). Until about three weeks ago, the teenagers were held in those 70-square-foot concrete cells for 23 hours a day. For one hour on weekdays, they could spend recreation time alone in a walled, 500-square-foot courtyard.

The youths couldn’t watch television, go to class or talk face to face with other inmates. The only phone calls they could make were to their attorneys or bail bondsmen. Their meals were slid through slits in a metal door.

Many of the youths at Jail North are awaiting trial. Some are never convicted.

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Now, during the hours out of their cells, the youths can have recreation time, do schoolwork, request library books, call their attorneys or take part in mental health therapy groups, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Karen Simon, a retired Mecklenburg County jail official who opposes the practice of putting teens in solitary, said she believes the change represents progress and will provide youths “a little breathing room.”

“But it’s not anywhere near best practices for the incarceration of youthful offenders,” Simon said. “I’m looking forward to the day when those cells are shut down.”

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham, who visited the youth solitary confinement unit in 2016, agreed. “I’m glad it’s a little better. But I won’t be happy until it’s eliminated.”

Irena Como, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, said that letting teens out of their cells for four hours a day isn’t enough.

“They can and should eliminate solitary confinement for all children under 18. Period,” Como said. “We know solitary confinement is particularly hard on children and adolescents whose brains are still developing.”

Former CMPD detective Garry McFadden, who won the race to become Mecklenburg’s next sheriff, has said he would like to do away with solitary confinement in the county.

Jail officials have previously said they need to separate troublemakers from the general population. And they’ve said they don’t consider the DDU to be a form of solitary confinement, noting that youths get to interact with jail staff members each day.

National experts, though, say that relying heavily on restrictive housing is an outdated approach.

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.

Under a leading set of national standards for managing youth in correctional facilities, young inmates should be isolated for no more than four hours — and never for purposes of punishment. The standards, developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, say that youths should only be held in isolation when they behave in a way that endangers themselves or others.

Research has shown that solitary confinement can cause depression, anxiety, hallucinations and rage in adults. A previous Observer investigation found that seven adult N.C. prison inmates spent more than 10 years in solitary — a practice that critics called inhumane.

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Experts say the social and sensory deprivation of solitary confinement can be even harder on youths, who aren’t as equipped to handle the stress.

A 2012 study of youths in solitary confinement, conducted by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, says that because youths are still developing, “traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow.”

Alexander: (704) 358-5060; @amesalex

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