The New York City Corrections Department, headed by former Maine Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, has announced that it will end the use of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds by the end of the year. New York is one of two states in the country that charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, and has recently drawn criticism for the brutal treatment of prisoners at Rikers Island, particularly adolescents and prisoners suffering from mental illness. There are 300 teenagers incarcerated at Rikers; of those, 51 are currently being held in solitary confinement.

Until May 2013, one of these adolescents was Kalief Browder. Browder was incarcerated at Rikers as a teen for over three years, without ever being convicted of any crime. Browder’s horrifying story, recently chronicled in a New Yorker article, goes like this: While walking home from a party, Browder and a friend suddenly found themselves surrounding by police vehicles and subsequently arrested on suspicion of a robbery that had occurred two weeks earlier, based solely on the word of the victim (whose own story about when the alleged robbery occurred changed). The next day, the teens were taken to Bronx County Criminal Court and charged with robbery, grand larceny and theft. While his friend was released pending trial, Browder, who was on probation at the time, had his bail set at $3,000 - a number his family could not afford. Because he could not post bail, Browder was put on a bus to Rikers. 

Once at Rikers, male adolescents are confined in a unit called the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC). A report by the U.S Attorney for the Southern District of New York described the RNDC as a place of “deep-seated cultural violence” where fights between inmates and guards are widespread. Browder recounts stories of officers beating up boys and then threatening to send them to the solitary confinement unit – "the Bing” – if they sought medial attention from the prison health clinic.

During his three years at Rikers, Browder made a series of trips to the Bing – the longest of which lasted for 10 months, from the end of 2010 through the summer of 2011. While there he was denied regular contact with his family members and was unable to participate in the school program offered at the prison. He was unable to purchase supplementary food and was limited to the three inadequate daily meals allotted by the prison; as a rapidly growing adolescent in need of a higher caloric intake, he lost a significant amount of weight. While there he also become increasingly depressed. After being sent back to the Bing yet again, Browder made his first suicide attempt by tearing his bed sheets into strips and trying to hang himself. He was taken to the clinic, but then returned to solitary. Following a trip to the court for yet another delay in his case (remember, Browder had not been convicted of the crime of which he was accused and was being held awaiting trial), he again tried to take his own life by breaking apart a plastic bucket and using the sharp pieces to cut his wrists.

In May 2013, more than 1,100 days after his initial arrest, Browder received news that the DA was dropping the charges against him. He was released from Rikers and has since moved back home with his family. However, the transition has been difficult. He friends all graduated from school in 2012, and many now have jobs and their own apartments. Like many who have experienced periods of prolonged isolation, Browder describes avoiding activities he used to enjoy and, instead, preferring to spend time alone in his room. Since returning home, he has tried to commit suicide twice.

Browder’s story is horrendous and terrifying. Our criminal justice system violently robbed Browder of three years of his life, something he will never regain. And while this is an extreme example, thousands of youth like Browder are detained every year, many of whom, like him, are being detained pretrial and have not been convicted of a crime, and many of whom are forced to languish in solitary confinement, a practice we know can cause lasting and permanent psychological damage. To read more about the harmful impact of solitary confinement, read Zach’s blog from last week.

The announcement from the New York City Corrections Department marks progress in the national conversation about the harmful effects of solitary confinement and will no doubt have significant impact on the youth currently in isolation on Rikers Island as well as for future youth. However, stories like Browder's serve as a grave reminder that our entire justice system – from police arrests to the courts, from prison conditions to the very use of incarceration on youth (let alone in adult facilities) – are in desperate need of repair. How an injustice like this was able to occur in a country purporting to respect human rights, and with due process protections enshrined in our Constitution, is unfathomable.