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ACTS Leader Identifies a Must-See PBS Documentary on Solitary Confinement

         Mike Hungerford is a leader in the ACTS Community, and one of the former Co-Chairs of the Criminal Justice Task Force. Over the weekend, he highlighted a PBS documentary about the issue of Solitary Confinement that still grips our nation. The documentary is produced by the PBS FRONTLINE team, who has also filmed documentaries in war-torn Syria. It is critical that social justice advocates be well informed on the issues they strive to influence. Therefore, it is recommended the ACTS Community take just a couple of hours to witness this abhorrent breach of justice. To watch the documentary, click below:

S35 Ep19: Last Days of Solitary


PBS provides this summary about the documentary: “The U.S. is the world leader in solitary confinement, with more than 80,000 prisoners being held in isolation. FRONTLINE goes inside one state’s ambitious attempt to decrease its use of solitary. "Last Days of Solitary" also investigates what happens when prisoners who have spent considerable time in isolation try to integrate back into society.”

Youth Solitary Confinement in Syracuse:

Understanding the Issue

            According to a report done by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, solitary confinement should receive a “complete and incontrovertible ban.” Anything over 15 days of confinement was categorized in their report as torture, and likely to cause irrevocable damage to its recipient. Youth are especially vulnerable to this form of punishment, as the sensory deprivation of solitary confinement inhibits healthy psychological development. Yet, it was revealed not long ago that many Syracuse youth had been exposed to this draconian punishment.


            Despite a lawsuit by our allies, including the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), Syracuse youth were still regularly sentenced to Solitary Confinement at the Syracuse Justice Center. Youth condemned to Solitary Confinement are tossed into cells no larger than an elevator for 23 hours a day. Josh Cotter of Legal Services of CNY implored us to enlighten lawmakers on these injustices.


            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. The Criminal Justice Task Force is now working diligently to uncover if the conditions have changed meaningfully yet since the lawsuit by our allies. Until then, Josh Cotter emphasized that our best weapon against Youth Solitary Confinement is currently political and public awareness.

            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, 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 completely?


           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. The Syracuse Justice Center, evidently, did not buy into the wisdom of the preliminary injunction. As early as last month, they were in contempt of the court’s orders. There were 29 youth at our Justice Center who had been regularly sent to solitary confinement, which justice centers across the country call endearingly “time out,” “room confinement,” or “reflective cottage.” According to data obtained from the Justice Center, the reasons for many of these youth’s confinement were 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.


           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 we become complacent in our advocacy. To remain well informed, the ACTS community should watch the PBS Documentary. Then, if we ever need to sway another person’s mind; be that a politician, a law enforcement official, or a fellow citizen, we will have the ammunition for an effective debate.

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