Earlier this summer, President Obama’s administration made it illegal for juveniles within the federal prison system to be placed in solitary confinement. New York State and New York City jails ban the practice as well. Yet just last month, the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, in Syracuse, came under fire for subjecting 16- and 17-year olds to “extended and arbitrary” solitary confinement, sometimes for periods that last several consecutive months.
Both the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Services of Central New York have filed suit against the sheriff’s office. According to the Gotham Gazette, the “lawsuit is on behalf of six black and Latino people who have been subjected to assaults, sexual harassment, threats, and denial of educational access over the most minor infractions or at the whim of guards.”
Is reform possible?
The issue of prisoner abuse – and the mistreatment of detained minors in particular – has gained a great deal of attention in recent years. A series of articles in the New Yorker, detailing the case of a juvenile who spent nearly two years in solitary on Rikers Island and his subsequent suicide, helped shed some much-needed, much-belated light.
There are calls for broad reform. The New York State Advisory Committee of the US Commission on Civil Rights, for examples, has called for the elimination of solitary confinement for anyone under the age of 25. The Committee notes that multiple studies have shown such isolation is extremely damaging to the mental health of young individuals, and is also linked to higher rates of recidivism.
Isolated for singing Whitney Houston
Yet system-wide changes will take time to implement. One hopes that, in the meantime, justice can be found for the juveniles in Syracuse. The Gazette details that one of them was put in solitary “in part for singing a Whitney Houston song in his cell.” Another, while in isolation, was prevented from changing his clothes for nearly three weeks.
Last year, the New York State Assembly passed a bill to raise the age for solitary confinement; the State Senate, however, blocked it. Now it’s clearer than ever that the Legislature must act -and act quickly – to prevent further abuse.