For teens at Rikers Island, solitary confinement pushes mental limits

Trey Bundy and Daffodil J. Altan, For teens at Rikers Island, solitary confinement pushes mental limits. The Center for Investigative Reporting, 4 March 2014. This story was produced in collaboration with Medium. “Because of its imposing size and notoriety, many people think Rikers is a prison, but it’s not. It’s a city jail, where on any given day about 85 percent of inmates await the resolution of their cases, according to the New York City Board of Correction. Most of the teenagers there are locked up because they can’t afford bail. In New York, anyone who is 16 or older is considered an adult under state criminal law. Rikers, one of the largest jails in the world, has an adolescent population that can rival the biggest adult jail systems in the country: between 400 and 800 a day.”

Solitary confinement at Rikers is officially called punitive segregation. Officials say the practice is reserved for the most dangerous inmates. But Rikers’ rules say 16- and 17-year-olds can be sent to the box for horseplay and “noisy behavior” or if they “annoy” staff members. Teenagers with “unauthorized amounts” of clothing or art supplies can go to solitary, too….

Every day, thousands of teenagers around the U.S. are held in solitary confinement, but no one knows for sure how many. That’s because the federal government does not require prisons, jails and juvenile halls to report the number of young people they put in isolation or how long they keep them there. After months of requests, officials at Rikers Island have yet to provide information on their facility. They declined to give interviews and denied requests for a tour of the solitary units. An October [2013] email to The Center for Investigative Reporting from spokesman Eldin Villafane reads: “I have to make clear to you at this point that the Dept of Correction will not be participating on your piece. Please discontinue your requests.”

Last month [February 2013], New York state prison officials said they would ban the use of solitary confinement as punishment for minors. But that settlement, forged after a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union, does not apply to Rikers jail, which is run by the city of New York.

Despite the movement in New York, the U.S. has failed to significantly address the issue of holding minors in solitary confinement. Most state laws are vague or nonexistent. Prisons, jails and juvenile halls try to keep their records secret and refuse to open their doors to scrutiny, and the federal government allows states to operate with little oversight. Along the way, the stories of minors locked up alone for months persist, despite strong evidence that extended periods of solitary confinement can lead to mental illness and suicide….

Every state has its own system for collecting data, if it collects any at all, and each defines solitary confinement in its own way…. If tracking juvenile isolation is tough, regulating it is tougher.

The U.S. Department of Justice has called prolonged juvenile isolation cruel and unusual punishment. Attorney General Eric Holder has condemned the practice, and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has convened congressional hearings on solitary confinement. Despite increasing rhetoric in Washington, no federal laws prohibit solitary confinement for youth or limit the number of weeks or months they can be locked in their cells for 23 hours a day….

Only the U.S., Somalia and South Sudan have declined to ratify the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits juvenile solitary confinement as a matter of international law.

Few in the corrections business admit that they use solitary confinement. Instead, they call it punitive segregation, disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, protective segregation, room time, room restriction, room confinement, disciplinary confinement, secure housing, behavioral treatment housing, restricted housing, restricted engagement, reflection time, suicide watch or isolated confinement for monitoring risk of suicide or self-harm.

Méndez [U.N. special rapporteur on torture] says the litany of euphemisms highlights how some corrections officials mask what’s really going on inside their facilities. He says there was a parallel debate over the word “torture.”…

In New York, not everyone opposes putting teenagers in the box, starting with the president of the city correction officers union, Norman Seabrook.

“Hell no,” he says. “We don’t use punitive segregation enough.”…

Last year, reports by the New York City Board of Correction, an independent panel that monitors and regulates city jails, showed that about a quarter of adolescents at Rikers were in solitary confinement on any given day. Of the teenagers in solitary, almost three-quarters had diagnosed mental health problems.

“We don’t have the experience to deal with a person with psychological problems,” Seabrook says. “We’re not doing enough because they shouldn’t be brought to us.”

But because the teens are brought to the jail, the union has fought hard to make sure solitary confinement reform does not take hold….

…[T]he debate over Rikers’ reliance on isolation has mushroomed into one of the testiest political debates in the city. Local advocacy groups formed the Jails Action Coalition and called for an outright ban on solitary confinement for juveniles and mentally ill inmates….

After months of bickering, the Board of Correction voted in September [2013] to begin creating new rules that would reduce solitary at Rikers. That process is expected to take at least another year.

When New York state initially made headlines with its proposed ban on punitive solitary for juveniles, Rikers officials declared themselves ahead of the curve. In a statement last month [February 2014], they said: “The New York City Department of Correction has already taken many steps to minimize the use of punitive segregation which are similar to those now proposed by the state.”

Recent reports indicate that adolescent inmates are serving shorter stretches in the box, and a one-day snapshot from January showed an 18.6 percent rate of youth in solitary versus about a quarter for most of last year. Still, no new regulations are in place, and no media have been allowed to see how teenagers live in the box….

Dromm [New York City Council member] says he was shocked to hear Seabrook say that solitary isn’t so bad because inmates get one hour a day out of their cells and can yell through their doors to communicate. “To me, it’s almost barbaric that somebody would say something like that,” he says…. “The one thing that really struck me, especially walking through the adolescent unit, was the fear on the faces of the inmates,” he says. “Most people would think that they’re tough and they’re angry and, from the way that some people describe them, violent and stuff, but I just saw lines and lines of very young men with their faces full of fear.”…

Jails have become America’s de facto mental health institutions. Over the past 60 years, the population of public psychiatric facilities has dropped about 90 percent, while the percentage of mentally ill inmates in juvenile halls, jails and prisons has skyrocketed.

At Rikers, almost half of all teens have diagnosed mental illnesses. For the youth population in solitary, that number jumps to nearly three-quarters, according to the Board of Correction.

Rikers inmates in solitary confinement are seven times more likely to hurt or mutilate themselves than those in the general population, according to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The U.S. Department of Justice found in 2009 that half of juvenile suicides behind bars happened while young inmates were in solitary confinement.

“The use of solitary confinement can only be seen by both staff and inmates as one of the most severe forms of punishment that can be inflicted on human beings short of killing them,” Dr. James Gilligan and Dr. Bandy Lee wrote in a scathing report about Rikers Island prepared for the Board of Correction and released in September [2013]. “The use of punitive segregation even among those not diagnosed as mentally ill is likely to increase the frequency of mental illness in the jail population, together with associated symptoms such as suicidal and assaultive behavior.”…

Additional resources:

Reveal Radio: What it’s like for teens in ‘the box.’ The Center for Investigative Reporting, 1 March 2014. “Altan and Bundy tried to get New York City correction officials to explain why they’re holding so many teens in solitary and asked to see how young people live in the box. But after dozens of emails and phone calls, and two trips to New York, no one would talk to them or give them access. Listen to the full segment to hear from youth who have been inside the box and how it affected them. And watch our new animation above, “The Box,” for one teenager’s experience of life in solitary confinement.”

PBS News Hour: Questioning solitary confinement for adolescents at Rikers Island. You Tube, 21 February 2014.

Related investigative articles:

Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz, Rikers: Where Mental Illness Meets Brutality in Jail. The New York Times, 14 July 2014.

Jennifer Gonnerman, Before the Law: A boy was accused of taking a backpack. The courts took the next three years of his life. The New Yorker, 6 October 2014. “…a rare account of life inside the notorious jail for adolescents on Rikers Island.”


Michael Schwirtz, Solitary Confinement to End for Youngest at Rikers Island. The New York Times, 28 September 2014.

Jennifer Gonnerman, A Lawsuit to End Abuse at Rikers. The New Yorker, 19 December 2014. “[On 18 December] Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced that the Justice Department is planning to sue New York City over the treatment of adolescent inmates on Rikers.”