“The Hole” Equates to Torture

Advocates in Syracuse, New York seek to end the use of solitary confinement of children in jail

The use of solitary confinement has been widely condemned by the United Nations, which denounces any confinement longer than 15 days as “cruel, inhuman and degrading torture.” Concerning the use of solitary confinement with people under the age of 18, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture advises a complete ban.

The use of solitary confinement has increased by more than 60% in New York’s jails between 2007–2013, with a report that nearly 27% of child inmates were in solitary. On September 5th I attended a courthouse vote on the use of solitary confinement with youth in county jails. Community activists had a chance to speak before the vote, and cited the story of Kalief Browder.

Browder, a sixteen year old African American man, was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack in 2010 and spent three years in a prison nearby New York city without ever being convicted of a crime.

Because Browder’s family didn’t have money to hire an attorney, he was appointed a lawyer to represent him. Though the assistant district attorney later acknowledged that it was a “relatively straightforward case,” Browder remained in the prison awaiting trial for three years because of budgetary issues with the court system, and not enough judges and court staff to process people quickly. Additionally, defense attorneys can drag out their cases to have better chances of winning them. Many states have “speed trial laws,” but New York does not.

During those three years that Browder was awaiting trial for a charge he was assaulted by guards and other inmates, and spent two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted suicide many times. When Browder was finally released from prison after three years he attended community college, but died by suicide two years later.

Back at the Syracuse county courthouse a doctor and activist took the stage:

“We will never be able to fully mitigate what happens to children [put in solitary confinement],” a therapist explained on the stage when it was her turn to speak.

“Being in a tiny room alone for days on end without other human interaction impairs the development of resiliency.

“ Rehabilitation from this experience has adverse affects on all people, but especially on young brains under 25.”

Another woman read a statement from a man who was just released from solitary confinement:

“Solitary confinement is a psychological took with a corrosive design that inhabits minds and poisons them with negative thoughts and inhibits social skills.”

In Syracuse yesterday, the courts ruled to overturn the use of solitary confinement for children in the county, helping to create a national precedent. While this was a success, it was not easily won. Advocates and activists have been working on this ruling for years, and made sure to connect it to the other fights for justice going on in the city.

“If we’re not talking about white supremacy and racism when we discuss all of this, we’re ignoring what’s going on.

“Most of the children put in solitary confinement have been children of color. We seem not to acknowledge that these are children. Tamir Rice was a boy when he was executed by police. Here in Syracuse, we are poisoning our children with lead in their daily water. To quote Nelson Mandela, ‘A society is judged on how it treats its youth.”

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