The torturous effects of solitary confinement was all the talk last week after a federal judge ordered the release of Albert Woodfox from the Louisiana State Prison.
Woodfox’s 1972 murder conviction of a prison guard had been overturned and the judge doubted the 68-year-old prisoner could receive a fair retrial, citing, among other problems, “the prejudice done onto Mr. Woodfox by spending over 40 years in solitary confinement.”
That seemed to elicit a collective gasp from across the country, the notion that a civilized society would abide prisoners locked away in some concrete and metal isolation box for years at a time.
It was not such shocking news, however, to Floridians. After all, we do it to children.
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That’s in part because Florida sends more juveniles to adult prisons than any other state. Paolo Annino, who heads the Public Interest Law Center at the Florida State University College of Law, told me via email Friday, “Florida Department of Corrections incarcerates 100,873 inmates and of that number 20,705 were juveniles at the time of their criminal offense.”
Annino added that Florida adult prisons “also have the youngest offenders, as young as 12 years old at the time of the offense, because unlike most other states, Florida has no minimum age for indictment. A 5-year-old could end up in Florida adult prison.”
In 2009, I wrote about a 29-year-old prisoner named Ian Michael who had spent more than half his life in solitary confinement —15 years. That meant 24 hours a day in a small cell. No interaction with other inmates. Food was delivered through a slot in the door. Solitary prisoners got five hours of exercise a week in an elongated concrete cage so depressing that if Michael had been a dog or horse, animal rights protesters would have marched on the Department of Corrections.
Michael had been arrested in Tampa on an attempted-murder charge when he was just 13, convicted as an adult and sent off to serve out a life term in one of Florida’s toughest adult lock-ups. It was a place where adolescent misbehavior gets you stuck in solitary.
Newspaper stories about Ian Michael (led by the Tampa Bay Times) generated enough outrage that prison officials finally ordered him back into the general prison population.
But not enough outrage to keep other juvenile prisoners from long stints in solitary.
In 2013, the state Senate criminal justice committee briefly flirted with a bill that would have curtailed the use of solitary confinement for juvenile prisoners. But the Florida Sheriffs Association complained that limiting solitary confinement for juvenile and mentally ill would drive up jail costs. Similarly, the state Department of Corrections warned 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.”
The bill never got out of committee. That was the last serious legislative effort in Florida to keep kids out of the isolation cells. Apparently, it was deemed too costly to put a stop to an inhumane practice.
Jean Casella of Solitary Watch, a national prison reform organization, said Friday that she knew of “real reform efforts elsewhere in the country that are focused on removing vulnerable populations like youth and people with mental illness from solitary altogether.” She added, “None of these things is currently going on in Florida.”
This despite findings issued by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 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.”
Paolo Annino told me, “It is no longer in dispute that solitary confinement harms children. The role of the DOC is to protect juvenile inmates, not make them psychotic. Solitary confinement aggravates a juvenile’s mental illness.”
He noted that half of all prison suicides occur among prisoners in solitary. “The fastest way to stop prison suicide is to stop the routine practice of solitary confinement.”
Amy Fettig, who heads up the ACLU’s Stop Solitary Campaign, cited a study released just last month by the Vera Institute of Justice finding that while solitary confinement had been conceived as a way to separate dangerous inmates from the general prison population, isolation has become, instead, a punishment guards dispense for “disruptive behavior — such as talking back, being out of place, failure to obey an order, failing to report to work or school, or refusing to change housing units or cells.”
She said use of solitary punishment by guards “has become so reflexive, with so very little oversight, that it has devolved into something cruel and inhumane and unnecessary.”
Who knows how many juveniles are languishing in solitary in Florida prisons? “There’s no obligation to report the numbers,” Fettig said.
Casella said Solitary Watch has run into the same problem. “We've been unable find out from the Florida Department of Corrections how many people they even hold in segregation. But with the nation’s third largest prison population and a strong record of abuse in its prisons, Florida definitely needs to take a hard look at its solitary confinement practices, and we don't see that happening.”
Other states are rethinking solitary. In January, New York corrections officials promised that they would no longer put inmates age 21 and younger in solitary. This followed a harrowing series of stories about young inmates in solitary by the New York Times. The Times had found that more than 100 juveniles were being held in isolation cells in the Rikers Island jail alone.
In South Carolina, where prisoners had spent years in solitary for breaking prison rules, the maximum time in isolation has been reduced to 60 days.
Mississippi, not known as a leader in penal reform, has also instituted new limits on solitary.
But in Florida, nothing.
My colleague Julie Brown has spent the last year reporting on startling instances of inmate abuses carried out by rogue guards in the Florida prison system, including the suspicious and brutal deaths of prisoners who had been held in solitary confinement.
“Prolonged solitary confinement,” as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry warned, may have serious potential psychiatric consequences for juveniles. But in Florida, it can also get them killed.