New York’s Rikers Island is the second largest jail in the United States, housing between 11,000 and 12,500 inmates at a given time. It is also one of the most violent jails in the country.
For many years, experts have acknowledged that placement in solitary confinement can negatively impact an inmate’s mental health. Until recently, juvenile inmates at Rikers were routinely placed in solitary confinement even for minor offense including talking back, simple horseplay, possession of unauthorized amounts of clothing or art supplies, or ignoring a direct order. Some of these juveniles sat in solitary confinement – locked alone in a cell for 23 hours a day – for up to 90 days. Other juveniles sat in solitary confinement for up to one or even two years.
In August 2014, the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan issued a report that was highly critical of the New York City Correction Department’s treatment of teenage inmates at Rikers. It noted that the atmosphere at the jail was permeated with a “deep-seated culture of violence”, and that the use of solitary confinement for juveniles (also known as “punitive segregation”) was “excessive and inappropriate”. Forty percent of the teenage inmates were subjected to the use of force by guards at least once, and required medical assistance more than 450 times. Teenage inmates were also instructed regularly to not report their injuries to other guards or the jail’s infirmary. US Attorney Preet Bharara noted that “[t]here is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates … We are talking about a culture problem and a systemic problem – not an individualized issue …”
Not surprisingly, the head of the Correction Officers’ union, as well as individual correction officers, all attempted to justify their use of solitary confinement for teens as necessary to control them.
In response to the US Attorney’s Report, the Correction Department decided to begin phasing out solitary confinement for adolescents by the end of 2014. As of now, the full elimination of solitary confinement for inmates under 21 will not occur until 2016. Solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates has apparently been eliminated, and solitary confinement for inmates 18 and older is supposed to be limited to one month.
Generally speaking, the juvenile justice field is moving toward more humane treatment for younger inmates. A hallmark of this changed approach is to house juvenile inmates in smaller facilities where they can receive additional services and increased opportunities for rehabilitation and other services. Cities and States across the United States are heading in this direction. Officials in New York City have attempted to do this, but are frequently blocked by communities that resist placement of such facilities in their area. In the aftermath of the US Attorney’s Report, at least one juvenile unit has been created at Rikers that focuses on rehabilitation. It includes more corrections officers, more clinical staff, and programming geared toward preparing juveniles for a positive and productive re-entry into the community.
The lessons of the recent disclosures concerning Rikers seem basic to the point of not even warranting discussion. First, there was some attempt to justify the use of solitary confinement for juveniles on the ground that there were simply not enough corrections officers. The obvious response is to hire more but that, standing alone, is insufficient. Juvenile inmates have special needs, and the corrections officers assigned to meet those needs require training geared specifically toward working with that offender population. Further, and in light of what is apparently a developing national consensus on this issue, housing teenage inmates at large adult jails is counterproductive since it takes an already troubled adolescent and places them in an environment that exacerbates the issues that brought them to the criminal justice system. It almost certainly makes more sense to have specialized separate facilities geared exclusively toward addressing the needs of juvenile offenders. Finally, juvenile facilities need to focus primarily on rehabilitation and retraining, since that is probably the most effective way to prevent juvenile offenders from becoming adult criminal defendants.