The Countywide Reform of Youth
The United Nations has widely condemned the use of solitary confinement, denouncing any internment longer than 15 days as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading torture.” The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture is even less forgiving in cases involving children, and advised that youth solitary confinement receive an incontrovertible ban. Yet, somewhere in the world, there was a jail that locked children in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, and weeks or months at a time.
In this jail, unconvicted youth who could not afford bail were tossed into cells smaller than an elevator for infractions as trivial as “wearing the wrong shoes.” The dark-green walls of the cells were covered in scratch marks from previous occupants, and the floors were often strewn with feces and urine. Through small openings, youth heard the threats of nearby adult prisoners to sexually harass them, and cover them in excrement.
“It’s like the cells are designed to make you act crazy,” said a 16-year-old prisoner, “I tried doing crossword puzzles but kept thinking about killing myself.”
For one hour a day, youth of both genders could exercise in filthy cages, like animals, or shower without a curtain in front of male guards. Between 2015 and 2016, this jail forced 86 children into these conditions in at least 250 instances. Many displayed symptoms of mental illnesses, and nearly all were youth of color. So, where was this jail? In fact, the jail described was the Onondaga County Justice Center in downtown Syracuse, New York.
“When they’re locked…in solitary confinement, studies prove that there are long-lasting mental health effects,” said Chris Ryan, Onondaga County Legislator of the 8th District in an interview with ACTS.
Experts have found that solitary confinement induces psychosis, trauma, depression, and self-harm in otherwise healthy individuals. It is no wonder 40% of prison suicides in New York State occur in solitary cells. In the Justice Center, youth were denied education while isolated, and released into society without adequate rehabilitation.
“We’re talking about youths who want to come out of the justice center and be responsible members of society,” said Ryan, “We don’t want them spiraling into a life-long journey through the criminal justice system.”
According to the New York Times, only 1% of juvenile charges in New York State can be classified as violent felonies. Meanwhile, 70% of youth criminal cases are for misdemeanors. Our justice system vilifies mostly non-violent kids, who have made amendable mistakes, and prepares them for bleak futures. By using solitary confinement, and denying rehabilitation, recidivism increases and our communities deteriorate.
June 2017 Settlement Agreement: Reform at Last
On June 26, 2017, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and the Legal Services of Central New York (LSCNY) won a court settlement agreement. The agreement followed a class-action lawsuit filed against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office in September 2016, on behalf of the abused youth. The court found the Justice Center had violated the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution. With this decision, youth solitary confinement in Syracuse has undergone dramatic reform.
“This settlement agreement will end, once and for all, the Justice Center’s cruel and unconstitutional practice of punishing juveniles with solitary confinement,” said Josh Cotter, case attorney from LSCNY.
According to NYCLU, one boy was confined 160 days for “talking out of his door.” Another boy and girl spent 400 and 102 days in isolation, respectively. One deputy even turned solitary confinement into a game. The deputy took youth onto the jail’s basketball court, and challenged them to make jumpshots and guess numbers. Based on their answers, the youth were sent to “the box.”
“This settlement ensures that kids…are no longer discarded and abused during an especially formative time in their lives,” said the Executive Director of NYCLU.
The settlement itself states that the Justice Center and the Syracuse City School District are obliged to offer special education, individualized and incentivized plans for rehabilitation, mental health services, and counseling. Additionally, the Justice Center must inform youth of jail rules so they cannot be punished arbitrarily. The settlement expires in October 2019.
Post-expiration, the settlement will remain remarkable for its precedence. As the New York Times reported, Josh Cotter of the LSCNY has already filed a lawsuit against a Broome County Jail for similar abuses. Momentum has clearly been established. So long as activists stay vigilant, an object in motion will tend to stay in motion.
County Resolution: Turning Reform into Law
The mistreatment of youth at the Justice Center has galvanized Legislator Chris Ryan to act. Many of his constituents in the 8th district live within the poorest census tracts in the nation, where poverty routinely pushes youths into the maws of the justice system. On July 12th, Ryan introduced a resolution to the Onondaga County Public Safety Committee that would abolish youth solitary confinement in all of Onondaga County. Since then, the resolution has been amended and approved by the County Executive, the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, other County Legislators, and county attorneys. Ryan and the resolution's other co-sponsors have also welcomed the possibility of revisions from Legislator Brian May and his colleagues since the Public Safety Commitee Meeting on August 9th, barring alterations that would detract from the resolution's purpose. Through its process of collaboration and transparency, the resolution respresents a truly non-partisan work for the public good.
“This is something, as a lawmaker, to get involved with and bring an end to a practice that shouldn’t be happening,” said Ryan.
The proposed resolution draws inspiration from the June settlement, and would extend many of its mandates to all of Onondaga County. Aside from establishing restorative, educational, and mental health programming, the resolution is determined to prevent all forms of youth solitary confinement. The constitutional rights of all youths at Onondaga County facilities would be safeguarded in cooperation with the Justice Center Oversight Committee and the Onondaga County/Syracuse Commission on Human Rights. Furthermore, correctional staff would undergo mandatory non-violent conflict resolution training, and their actions monitored to avoid regression.
This resolution arrives at a national crossroads. The US has the developed world’s highest incarceration rate, but recent injustices have spurred an important question. Will we return to the self-destructive “tough on crime” approach? Or will we invest in practical rehabilitation. If our society is to be just, it must be the latter.
“We are making ground. We are now seeing additional legislators willing to co-sponsor the legislation. Keep the conversation going, and not just within your ranks. Go into your community and ask, ‘who else can we get on board with this?” concluded Ryan.
Update: Resolution to End Youth Solitary Confinement Passed Unanimously!
The Criminal Justice Task Force of ACTS has worked tirelessly with County Legislators and other allies to end the abhorrent practice of Youth Solitary Confinement since January, 2015, when the issue was first brought forward by The Grace Project, a ministry of Grace Episcopal Church.
ACTS and its allies have long demanded transformational legislation within the County Legislature. In response, a resolution materialized in the Public Safety Committee by efforts of Legislator Chris Ryan and others over the past year. After much deliberation, the proposed resolution finally hit the floor of the County Legislature for discussion on September 5th, 2017. Powerful testimonies were delivered by people from ACTS, NYCLU, and other organizations, before the legislature proceeded to a decision on the resolution. The benches in the back had overflowed with citizens who came to witness the results, and many were left standing around the chamber for lack of remaining seats. In the tense moments before the legislators finalized their votes, the crowd held their breath.
The resolution passed unanimously, with 17 votes to 0, amid extended applause from the community members who attended September 5th, 2017. Those who have worked on this issue for years likely felt an exhalation of relief and pride at this momentous decision. In the wake of the resolution's passage, youth will no longer experience rampant abuse by way of Youth Solitary Confinement in Onondaga County facilities. ACTS applauds the actions of the County Legislature to address this vital issue with clear legislation at long last. With the resolution adopted, ACTS and its allies will continue to monitor the situation and ensure the new resolution is enforced earnestly throughout the county.
Thanks to the endeavors of those who value social justice, the resilience of youth who withstood extended solitary confinement, and the courage of those same youth to report their suffering, we have collectively abolished Youth Solitary Confinement not only in Syracuse, but across all of Onondaga County. Together, we have transformed our local criminal justice system.
ACTS has composed a press release following this spectacular progress. To view that press release, click the button below:
2. Data collected from Onondaga County Justice Center about Inmates aged 17 or Younger
3. New York Civil Liberties Union Press Release on Youth Solitary Confinement Reform Settlement
4. Facts on solitary confinement compiled by "Think Outside the Box Campaign, New York"
5. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture
6. Interview with Christopher Ryan, County Legislator of Onondaga County from the 8th District
7. Past ACTS articles and information compiled pertaining to the Youth Solitary Confinement Issue
8. New York Times: