In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: For kids in isolation, a shrug from Florida lawmakers

Reports that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been subjecting scores of immigrant detainees to solitary confinement, many of them for 23 hours a day, some for stretches of 75 days or more, brought a quick, angry response in Washington.

Senator Charles E. Schumer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, reacting to a report in the New York Times, fired off a letter to the agency Tuesday, complaining of “an over reliance by ICE on the harshest forms of incarceration.” Schumer warned that unless the agency reduced the use of isolation cells, legislation would be written to force a change in policy. That same day, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she ordered ICE to provide her with some explanation for the cruel surge in the numbers kept in solitary.

The reaction in Washington was markedly more urgent than in Tallahassee, where the Senate criminal justice committee held a hearing last week looking into the Florida’s widespread use of solitary confinement for another kind of prisoner — children confined to state prisons and county jails. After a short hearing, a piece of proposed legislation to regulate the use of solitary for juvenile inmates was set aside without a committee vote. (The bill is scheduled to come up again next week, though there’s not much hope that it will pass.) Kids in solitary got not much more than a shrug.

Washington politicians and immigrant-advocacy groups were outraged after the Times reported that on any one day, ICE has stuck 300 detainees in isolation cells. Many of them are being held in solitary for more than 15 days, a lonely duration that psychiatric experts warn could lead to serious psychological damage.

Last month, conservative syndicated columnist George Will wrote that the use of prolonged solitary confinement in American prisons “arguably constitutes torture and probably violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’ ” Will wrote, “Isolation changes the way the brain works, often making individuals more impulsive, less able to control themselves. The mental pain of solitary confinement is crippling: Brain studies reveal durable impairments and abnormalities in individuals denied social interaction. Plainly put, prisoners often lose their minds.”

Will was writing about the effect on adult prisoners. Surely, the risk of mental damage for juveniles consigned to the hole in Florida jails and prisons would be even more acute. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a policy statement last year warning, “The potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis. Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions. Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”

Four years ago, I wrote about a young state prisoner, Ian Michael, who at 29 had spent more than half his life in solitary confinement — 15 years, 24 hours a day in a concrete box. No interaction with other inmates. Food was delivered through a slot in the door. Solitary prisoners would get five hours of exercise a week in what Meg Laughlin of the Tampa Bay Times described as an “empty concrete cage that resembles a dog run.” After Laughlin’s story, the prisoner who had been tried as an adult at age 13, convicted on murder charges and confined to an adult lock-up., was finally allowed back into the general population. I had assumed that the Michael case had been an aberration, an anachronism, some remnant of another era.

Not so. We still do it. Florida sends more juveniles to adult prisons (about 300 to 400 at any one time) than any other state. Ian Kysel of the American Civil Liberties Union, who testified at the state Senate criminal justice hearing last week, reported that those juveniles in adult lock-ups are confined to solitary in disproportionate numbers compared to the adult population, often for kid stuff — talking back to the guards, breaking rules. Or for suicide watch or for protective custody away from other prisoners.

Kysel, who interviewed 38 young inmates who’ve done time in Florida isolation cells, told the senators that they reported significant psychotic episodes after prolonged confinement, including hallucinations and self mutilation. They’re kept in the box with no educational pursuits and only the tiniest opportunities for exercise. He told the senators that half the suicides among juvenile prisoners at adult jails and prisons occur in isolation cells — a cruel bit of irony for the parents of children confined to solitary exactly because they were deemed suicidal.

Angelia Reddick, mother of a 17-year-old state prisoner who has spent five of the past 20 months in solitary confinement, told the senators that “solitary has crushed his spirit.” She held up a “before” and a haggard “after” photo of her son to show the effect.

But no one on the Senate panel questioned the two witnesses who spoke in favor of the reform bill. The committee seemed more interested in the testimony from a representative of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, who complained about the potential cost if county jails are forced to limit solitary confinement for rowdy or mentally ill juvenile prisoners. And the state Department of Corrections warned Senate staffers that “it does not have the resources to comply with the provisions of the bill. It assesses that the bill’s overall fiscal impact on its operations is indeterminate, but that it is likely to be significant.”

Apparently, putting an end to the psychological torture of juvenile prisoners would put just too much stress on the DOC budget.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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