International Business Times: Kalief Browder Suicide: Did Solitary Confinement Kill Him? Advocates On The ‘Torture’ Of Juvenile Detainees At Rikers Island

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By Barbara Herman

When New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm first visited Rikers Island three years ago, he entered a cell to get a sense of what it was like to be detained there. It was the same kind of jail cell Kalief Browder was thrown into in 2010, at age 16, after being accused of stealing a backpack.

Although Browder was never convicted, and maintained until the end that he didn’t do it, he spent three years at the notorious New York jail, two in solitary confinement, awaiting trial because his parents couldn’t afford his bail. He attempted suicide several times there. His charges were dismissed — without a trial — and he was released on May 29, 2013, by a judge known for dismissing cases that had been backlogged for years. And even though he was beginning to get his life back together at age 22 and had celebrity advocates including Jay Z and Rosie O’Donnell, Browder committed suicide on Saturday, a tragic coda to a life whose story was powerfully reported by Jennifer Gonnerman of the New Yorker.

It’s hard not to connect his suicide directly with the psychological fallout of being incarcerated for three years in an adult facility, with regular beatings caught on surveillance video by guards and other inmates, and spending two years in solitary confinement. Juan Méndez, of the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, has said unequivocally that juvenile solitary confinement is torture.

“For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken,” U.S. attorney in Manhattan Preet Bharara said at a news conference after looking into the conditions for male detainees at Rikers in August. “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort, a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries, where beatings are routine while accountability is rare.”

After the Justice Department gave a scathing review of what they called a “culture of violence” there, Dromm was able to get a bill passed he’d failed to with the Bloomberg administration which called for transparency at Rikers. Last August, the New York City Council approved the bill, which requires corrections officials to publish regular reports posted on the Department of Corrections website about who is in solitary confinement in city jails and at Rikers Island.

And in September, Rikers Island announced it was eliminating solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old detainees. Many questions remain about whether or not the system should be incarcerating 16-year-olds at all, often for minor crimes, or if solitary confinement has a place in the U.S. in the 21st century.

Charles Dickens Meets Guantanamo Bay

“It was horrible,” Dromm told International Business Times regarding his brief jail cell visit at Rikers Island. “I still get emotional when I think about what I saw. The conditions Kalief must have endured is hard to describe.”

“It was claustrophobic. It smelled like urine. There was graffiti on the walls and the paint was peeling,” said Dromm. “The bed was filled with dirt, grease, grime, and the blanket was covered with mildew and mold. And this was what they were willing to show me! With one small window and locked doors — I couldn’t imagine spending 23 hours a day there. Imagine being stuck in your bathroom alone for 23 hours a day.”

Although the official word is that detainees can leave their cell for one hour a day, Dromm said 24 hours a day is often the reality for juvenile detainees in solitary confinement. According to Dromm, corrections officers often try to wake detainees at 4 a.m. for their one hour of recreation time, and they often choose to continue sleeping instead. Dromm said he would rather use “detainee” than “inmate,” since Browder, like many other juveniles at Rikers, was there awaiting trial and should have been considered innocent until proven guilty.

The effects of solitary confinement on the human mind have been studied extensively.

Dr. Rami Kaminski, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, has worked with those housed in solitary confinement. “It’s a form of sensory deprivation,” he told IBTimes. “There’s noise, but no interaction with a human voice. That can be extremely scary. We get our reality check from other people.”

Symptoms, some of which show up within hours, include: visual and auditory hallucinations; paranoid thought; regressive breakdowns that cause detainees to throw feces or lay in a fetal position. “It can leave people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They develop panic disorders, claustrophobia,” said Kaminski. “Solitary confinement should not exist. Crowd control doesn’t have to be brutal force. In general, our penal system needs to find cues on how to handle inmates with behavioral psychologists rather than the Spanish Inquisition.”

“Being home is way better than being in jail,” Browder told Gonnerman when she saw him last. “But in my mind right now, I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.”

Raise The Age

Any day now, a bill might pass in the assembly in Albany, New York that ends the automatic prosecution of 16-to-17-year-olds, raising the age someone can be considered an adult to 18.

New York and North Carolina are the only states that prosecute all youth as adults when they’re 16 years old. In 2013, over 33,000 16-and 17-year-olds were arrested as adults in New York State. And young people housed in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than if they’re housed in juvenile detention centers, according to Raise the Age, which raises awareness about the issue of the incarceration of young people in adult facilities.

For Angelo Pinto of Correctional Association of New York , founded in 1844, who advocates for juveniles in the system, being “tough on crime” doesn’t always yield the intended results.

“Years of research shows that putting a young person in an adult system increases their chances exponentially of ‘recidivating’ or reentering the system,” Pinto told IBTimes. “Brain development research has indicated that the brain doesn’t reach significant development until the age of 25. They’re still in the formative stages. What we’re saying when we put a 16-year-olds in with adults, is: We’re going to take you out of the community and put you in a hyperviolent, restrictive environment, and we expect you not to commit any crimes when you get out.”

For Browder, solitary confinement punctuated by hyperviolence, indefinitely imposed, made him turn violence against himself long after he got out, in spite of all the support he got after his case made headlines.

“Rikers should be shut down completely,” said Dromm. “But 16 – to-18-year-olds, they shouldn’t be there. It’s an easy first step for the administration to take. The torture Kalief endured could have an impact if it’s imprinted in people’s minds. Here’s a 16 year-old-kid, accused of a crime he insisted to his own detriment he didn’t commit. The government didn’t even have a witness against him. I say all New Yorkers are responsible for Kalief’s death. We have a moral obligation to speak up.”

Read more here.

Capital: Council to introduce Rikers Island package

By Gloria Pazmino

The City Council is introducing a package of bills on Tuesday to require the city’s Department of Correction to provide detailed reports on inmates’ demographic information and the department’s use-of-force policy, and to create a crisis intervention plan at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex.

In total, the Council will introduce eight bills, with a majority of them being co-sponsored by Councilmen Dan Garodnick and Danny Dromm, Democrats of Manhattan and Queens.

One of the bills would require the department to provide quarterly reports on the jail’s inmate demographics and include specific information such as their gang affiliation and their level of education.

Currently, the department compiles demographic reports, but only on a yearly basis, which council members said does not provide timely information about the inmate population given the high rate of turn over.

“Knowing their age, race, and gender will help us understand who specifically is staying at Rikers Island,” Dromm told Capital.

A second proposal, sponsored by Garodnick, Dromm and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, would require D.O.C. to publish its specific policies on use of force on a city website and make them readily available to the public.

The document would outline specific circumstances that would warrant use of force on an inmate, as well as how the department responds when there is an inmate disturbance.

Read more here.

Center For Investigative Reporting: Rikers Island is eliminating juvenile solitary confinement. Now what?

By Trey Bundy and Daffodil Altan

rikers impact photo

Rikers Island in New York, the second-largest jail in the U.S., is eliminating solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates.

 

For years, New York City’s Department of Correction has worked to conceal its practice of putting adolescent inmates in solitary confinement. But this week, the agency announced plans to eliminate such confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates.

The swift action indicates that juvenile solitary confinement has become a human rights issue that officials nationwide can no longer ignore.

The changes come after several months of media scrutiny and a critical U.S. Department of Justice investigation calling on the agency to revamp its treatment of adolescents. The Center for Investigative Reporting was the first to report on the issue earlier this year. Here are some key things to understand about juvenile solitary confinement in the U.S. and the efforts to reform it.

Most youth detention facilities in the United States use some form of prolonged isolation for teens.

Solitary confinement often is the default intervention used for teenagers in lieu of adequate staff training and supervision and mental health services for inmates.

While correction officers say solitary confinement is needed to control violent young inmates, our reporting found that teens are routinely sent for minor infractions. At Rikers Island, guards are permitted to isolate inmates for days or weeks for talking back, horseplay and possession of “unauthorized amounts” of clothing or art supplies.

We know little about how many young inmates get placed in solitary, why and for how long.

This is what Juan Méndez, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, called “a chaos of information.” Juvenile solitary confinement is torture, he said, and no one knows how common it is.

Because most U.S. facilities are not required to track or report their use of isolation for juveniles, the practice has flourished in the shadows. And because no federal laws prohibit isolating teenagers indefinitely for 23 hours a day, young inmates can spend months alone in their cells without anyone outside their facilities noticing.

Many facilities suppress information and close their doors to scrutiny.

New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm sponsored a recently passed bill requiring corrections officials to report detailed data about who is held in solitary, why and for how long, after officials refused to provide him with data he requested. His legislation could be a model for other jurisdictions seeking the access and information required to understand what is happening to teenagers in local facilities.

Read full article here.