The End Of Solitary For Teens On Rikers Island — A Step In The Right Direction

Monday, January 12, 2015

As a step in the right direction, Joseph Aponte, the NYC corrections commissioner, has decided to end the practice of solitary confinement for 16- and 17- year olds in NYC jails by the end of 2014.

Just imagine that it was normal for 10th and 11th graders — or young people in that age demographic — to be held in solitary confinement (more commonly known as “the bing” or “the box”) on Rikers Island. The bing is where young people, 16 and 17 years old, would spend days, weeks, and sometimes months locked in a cell for over 23 hours a day, in an environment where, the U.S. Attorney’s office noted, had a “deep-seated culture of violence.”

Rather than putting kids in solitary, according to the New York Times, NYC DOCS intends to address misconduct by teens on Rikers with “alternative options and intermediate consequences for misbehavior and steps designed to pre-empt incidents from occurring.” While vague in specifics, the transition to alternatives to solitary confinement for teens follows a trend in alternatives to incarceration (ATI), a model that diverts people from prison and jail to community-based programming and services. The Fortune Society is proud to be a part of this shift to ATI as a member of the NY Alternatives to Incarceration Re-entry Coalition, and it supports the commissioner’s move to end solitary confinement for teens.

The end of solitary confinement for teens — a logical and sensible move — still raises more questions, questions that require serious consideration. According to Piper Anderson, chief creative strategist at Create Forward, “Punitive segregation has damaging consequences for anyone, but especially for adolescents who are in such a malleable stage of their development. Most young people will return home after detention; in what psychological state are we returning them to their families and communities?” The physical and mental abuse will be reduced by the elimination of solitary, but the lingering trauma of a teenager spending 23 hours in a closet-sized space is not easily eliminated.

Five Mualimm-ak, program director for the Incarcerated Nation Campaign, adds, “We need to complement [the end of solitary confinement torture on Rikers Island for 16- and 17- year olds] with appropriate programming for those suffering from mental illness that is not diagnosed as serious, but are suffering.”

As NYC sets the precedent for ending solitary confinement for teens, “we must also be careful to truly abolish the use of solitary and not just simply rename it. Punitive segregation, administrative segregation, special housing units, or enhanced housing units are all solitary confinement, just by a different name,” says Johnny Perez of the Urban Justice Center.

This step in the right direction is an incremental step that should be the beginning of reform in our approach to young people and incarceration, not the culmination of reform.

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