‘Trapped in a box’: Sheriff shutters unit that kept teen inmates in solitary confinement

New Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden has ended the jail’s controversial practice of holding teenage offenders in solitary confinement, his latest in a series of reforms.

At the jail’s disciplinary detention unit (DDU), 16- and 17-year-olds who fought, stole or broke other jail rules were once held alone for 23 hours a day. They sat in windowless cells smaller than most parking spaces, with no access to phones, visitors or library books.

Critics called that torture. In January 2016, President Obama banned solitary for youths in federal custody, saying the practice often has “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.” Later that year, North Carolina officials announced a similar ban for youths in the state prison system.

McFadden said during his recent election campaign that he wanted to do away with solitary confinement. It was among a series of reforms that he has promised to bring to the jails.

McFadden says he is starting to change solitary confinement practices with the teenage offenders at Jail North. On Dec. 31, the five inmates held in isolation inside the DDU were moved to new areas and given new privileges.

Those inmates are now let out of their cells for at least seven hours a day. They can use the telephone, visit the library, watch television and visit relatives. They can also attend classes with other inmates — a privilege they didn’t have in the DDU.

McFadden said he hopes that will help spur more conversations — and fewer confrontations — between young inmates and detention officers.

“If you continue to disgrace (a young offender), and you continue to strip him of his dignity and you never give him a foundation to be a productive citizen — on day 13, when he gets out of the jail, what happens?” McFadden asked.

‘A crazy life’

One 17-year-old inmate told the Observer he spent about 10 days inside the DDU last year. He said there was little to do inside his cell there but sleep, eat, think and do push-ups.

“Once you get in there, it’s like being trapped in a box,” said the inmate, who has begun serving a sentence for armed robbery “I think it’s a crazy life. Just sitting in that cell.”

The inmate said he is happy for the new opportunities outside the DDU. He is attending classes with other young offenders at Jail North and hopes to get his GED.

“It’s turned my whole life around, to be honest,” he said.

A cell in the now closed Disciplinary Detention Unit (DDU) at Jail North. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s office has closed the controversial solitary confinement unit, where 16- and 17-year-old offenders were once held in isolation for all but one hour a day. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

After taking over as sheriff, McFadden said he sat down to talk to the teens in the DDU four times and has established a “great relationship” with them. He said he told them that his New Year’s resolution was to close the solitary confinement unit. The unit was formally shuttered on New Year’s Day.

They said, ‘What do we have to do?’ ” McFadden said, recalling his conversation with some of the young offenders. “I said, ‘You’ve got to work with me because I’m putting my name and reputation on the line.’ ”

McFadden said one 16-year-old in the solitary confinement unit had read the entire Bible. Then he requested a copy of the Quran. McFadden got him a copy.

That inmate spent 13 days in the DDU in December.

He told an Observer reporter that he would try to read his copy of the Quran inside his cell. But he found it difficult to concentrate, he said, because the environment was “loud and obnoxious.”

Inmates would yell, kick their doors and sometimes throw urine out of the small slits in their doors where their meals were delivered.

“It would drive you crazy,” said the 16-year-old inmate, who was charged with robbery last year and later landed in the jail’s solitary unit for fighting. “We’re young. We’re not as wise as the older folks. So we lose our minds quicker.”

After leaving the solitary unit, he said, “it was just peaceful.”

The Observer is not identifying the teenage inmates because they are minors.

‘You cannot spit on my deputies’

Sheriff’s Sgt. Avis Henderson, who has worked with young offenders at Jail North for nearly two decades, said she has seen changes with teenage inmates in the week since the DDU was closed.

“Now, they can express their anger as opposed to acting out,” she said.

Detention in the DDU sometimes seemed to make young offenders behave worse, Henderson said.

But she believes young offenders who assault others still need to face consequences.

“The DDU is something I think we can get away from,” Henderson said. “But what do we do when there is a situation like an assault on staff?”

The metal doors of the Disciplinary Detention Unit (DDU) are different from the wooden cell doors in general housing at Jail North. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s office has closed the controversial solitary confinement unit, where teenage offenders were once held in isolation for all but one hour a day. John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

McFadden said his office is working to refine new disciplinary rules for young offenders. But he said that young offenders who commit assaults or break other jail rules will face consequences.

“You cannot put your hands on my deputies,” McFadden said. “You cannot spit on my deputies. You can’t throw feces or whatever else on my deputies. You can’t do it. Other than that, we’re good.”

A search for alternatives

In a 2016 story, the Observer described how teens in the DDU were held in 70-square-foot concrete cells for 23 hours a day. They were not allowed to 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.

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

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.

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.

Following the Observer’s reporting about the teens who were held in solitary, several groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU, spoke out against the practice.

This past September, the sheriff’s office eased restrictions on the teens in DDU. It began letting them out of their cells for four hours each weekday.

McFadden says he has since lifted more of the restrictions because he wants those teens to be able to make it in the outside world.

That’s one of several reforms that McFadden has begun to enact.

In December, McFadden ended the county’s participation in the 287(g) program - under which deputies ran inmate names through a federal database to determine if they were in the country illegally.

And this week, McFadden said his office plans to restore in-person visits with jail inmates within 30 days. Face-to-face visits between inmates and family members and friends had ended under former sheriff Irwin Carmichael in favor of visits done solely via video monitors. McFadden, as a candidate, had said video should not be the only option for jail visits.

“We could do all this punishment all day. But then they’re still going to come out into the neighborhood,” McFadden said. “We’re just trying to prepare somebody to re-enter society. ... Let’s start now.”

Karen Simon, a retired Mecklenburg County jail official, said she has been hoping for years that the sheriff’s office would close the teen solitary unit. Holding inmates that young in isolation, she contends, is government-sanctioned abuse.

“To see that DDU with empty cells is a dream come true,” she said.

Alexander: 704-358-5060; @amesalex