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Training to Save Syracuse Youth:

Criminal Justice Task Force

When: March 28th, 2017 at 5:00 p.m.

Where: Grace Episcopal Church

Address: 819 Madison St, Syracuse, NY 13210

            At 5:00 pm on Tuesday, March 28th, the ACTS Criminal Justice Task Force will train activists in preparation for meetings with the Onondaga County Legislatures in April. All are encouraged to receive this invaluable training at the Grace Episcopal Church, whether you plan to talk to a lawmaker in April or further in the future. The seminar will feature interactive demonstrations on how to advocate for the end of Youth Solitary Confinement in Syracuse.


            Despite a recent lawsuit by our allies, including the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Syracuse youth are still regularly sentenced to Solitary Confinement at the Syracuse Justice Center. Youth condemned to Solitary Confinement are tossed in cells no larger than an elevator for 23 hours a day. The United Nations has denounced use of this draconian practice on youth, and defined any Solitary Confinement exceeding 15 days as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading…torture.” Josh Cotter of Legal Services of CNY implored us to enlighten lawmakers on these injustices. Together, ACTS will train our activists so they may answer this call to action. Ending Youth Solitary Confinement is a major step toward eliminating Mass Criminalization and transforming Syracuse into a just and equitable society for all.

           Ministry of “The Grace Project” warned ACTS in 2015 that Syracuse youth had been subjected to Solitary Confinement for extended time periods at the Onondaga County Correctional Facility in Jamesville. After a long fight by the ACTS Community, County Executive Joanie Mahoney ordered the youth relocated to the Justice Center in downtown Syracuse. As she announced this decision on October 18th, 2015 at the Grace Episcopal Church, under a grey sky, we assumed Youth Solitary Confinement had ended.


“During my days locked in I battled suicidal thoughts, I talked to myself to remain focused…This is why incarcerated minds need hope, fair treatment, and another option,” a 17-year-old victim of Youth Solitary Confinement in Syracuse said at the time.

            Conditions did not improve much following the move to the Syracuse Justice Center though. In many ways, they worsened. Even as legal courts sided with us, citing that Youth Solitary Confinement is likely to violate the 8th Amendment in the US Constitution against “cruel or unusual punishments,” the Syracuse Justice Center continued their use of “punitive segregation.” As a result, many youth suffered severe damage to their psychological health over the years. Rehabilitative efforts have been consequentially hindered or destroyed.


            The New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Services of CNY were informed by the ACTS Community somewhat recently of these transgressions. In response, they launched a class action lawsuit against the Justice Center. Through the proceedings, the Court discovered that the youth at the Justice Center were sexually harassed by adults, housed in disgusting conditions, denied education, and pushed to contemplate suicide as a means of escape. Faced with overwhelming evidence of these injustices, the presiding judge issued a preliminary injunction ordering the immediate cessation of Youth Solitary Confinement. Additionally, the Justice Center must ensure adequate education to youth by the Syracuse City School District for at least three hours a day. Has the Syracuse Justice Center complied?


            The answer is no. Although they reluctantly agreed to educational provisions, the Syracuse Justice Center has refused to end their use of Solitary Confinement on 16 and 17-year-olds. The Justice Center is in contempt of court orders. During the interim period between court sessions, our job as social justice activists is to inform our elected officials of these travesties. Josh Cotter emphasizes that our best weapon against Youth Solitary Confinement at this time is political and public awareness. This starts with understanding the issue, and relaying information to those who have wide influence across the county. 

            According to a report done by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, solitary confinement on youth should receive a “complete and incontrovertible ban.” Anything over 15 days was cited as torture, and New York State has no official limit on the duration a youth can spend in solitary confinement. Likewise, medical experts have uncovered that the minds of youth are exceptionally vulnerable to the severe sensory deprivation featured in solitary confinement. The human mind is not fully formed until its early twenties, with the region of the brain responsible for inhibiting impulses, weighing consequences, and prioritizing decisions being the last to develop. Essentially, this means youth will get into trouble more often, and if their punishment 

is as psychologically damaging as solitary confinement their development may be permanently interrupted.


            In New York, thousands of youth per year are exposed to psychological, physical, and social damage through solitary confinement. Over 40% of suicides in prison occur in solitary cells, and those youth who do survive intact are commonly released into the community directly without any extensive rehabilitation. These counterproductive procedures increase rates of recidivism, irrevocably scar our youth, and make our communities less safe. Amazingly, prisons who ended their use of solitary confinement witnessed a 75% decrease in prison violence. So why has Syracuse not ended this?


            An article by Mary Read states that even when local governments adopt positions against solitary confinement, such as the preliminary injunction in Syracuse, justice center administrators may not buy into the notion. Effective change curtailed by obstinacy must be met with enforcement and full education of front-line staff on the dangers of solitary confinement. The Syracuse Justice Center, evidently, has neither been enforced nor educated. There are 29 youth at our Justice Center who have been regularly sent to solitary confinement, which justice centers across the country call endearingly “time out,” “room confinement,” or “reflective cottage.” As you read these words, 9 Syracuse youth remain confined (informed by data retrieved about the Justice Center). According to a data sheet from the Justice Center, reasons for many of these youth’s extreme punishment are as arbitrary and trivial as “horseplay,” “stockpiling milk and linens,” “talking to a lock-in,” and “disrespect.” Of the 29 incarcerated youth, 23 of them are black, which might not be purely coincidental.


            When hearing this news, one might think of Kalief Browder. Browder was a black 16-year-old who was falsely accused of stealing a backpack in 2010, and spent three years on Rikers Island awaiting trial. Before his case was dismissed by court, he had spent 2 years in solitary confinement. While confined, he attempted to hang himself from a light fixture with a noose made of bed sheets. When that failed, he sharpened a shard of plastic from a bucket in his cell and cut himself open. He was never the same person again after his release. Browder suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and had ongoing flashbacks, depression, paranoia, and hallucinations. On June 6th, 2015, Kalief Browder committed suicide at the age of twenty-two.


            Browder’s story has given a solemn windfall to the movement of ending Youth Solitary Confinement throughout the US. In January 2016 former-President Obama memorialized Browder by banning youth solitary confinement in all federal prisons. His powerful symbolic move likewise inspired states like Ohio and California to follow suit by substantially reforming their youth criminal justice systems. Onondaga County has begun to follow this path as well. Syracuse is one of the first cities in the US to execute a lawsuit of the type done by the NYCLU, which we must continue to support with our efforts through ACTS. The progress we have fought for over the last two years could be undone if the new federal administration fulfills its “tough on crime” platform. On Tuesday, March 28th, we must train ourselves at the Grace Episcopal Church to fight for the justice our youth deserve.

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