“I made it out—thank God” — Emanuel
In 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia began using solitary confinement to better rehabilitate prisoners. In this prison, they believed those isolated in cells alone with the Bible, a small window, and honest work would begin to repent. Almost a century after its opening, this strategy was repurposed for punishment. Critics had won the debate with compelling arguments about solitary’s ineffectiveness and inhumanness. So began the torture of American citizens.
On a field trip for a political science class, I stood in one of those isolation cells. The room was dusty, grey, rough, and small enough where you could touch both walls with no need to stretch.
In my first week as a policy intern at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, I talked with a young man named Emanuel who was forced into isolation at four different juvenile facilities across California. Looking at him as a tall, broad, 21 year old, I could not imagine him at 15 spending over seven consecutive months in isolation. He told me, “…that’s nothing. I knew people that were there for two years.”
Across the country in New York, Kalief Browder suffered at the hands of our justice system. At 16, he was sent to Rikers Island for a crime he was never convicted of and spent three years there—two years in solitary confinement. He received his slim portions of food through a slot in the door. He was violently abused and mentally and emotionally tortured. He was locked in his cell for 23 hours a day, as was Emanuel in California.
In solitary, prisoners are denied connection, touch, and social or intellectual stimulation. One of the few things children are supposed to receive in solitary is an education. By law, each youth in California must receive at least 240 minutes of education a day, yet Emanuel spoke of little to no education while in solitary. He explained, “You don’t get school. Sometimes you don’t get books. It depends on whether the staff are in a good mood or not.”
In NYC, Kalief received “cell study” where he would complete worksheets in his cell that officers would collect and slide back under his cell door with teacher’s marks. Yet, sometimes no one would come to pick up his worksheets. In the end, how can children successfully learn in a room alone when they are deprived of everything else?
During teenage years, solitary can be detrimental to a young person's psychological and mental development. It is common for youth to experience hallucinations, obsessiveness, insomnia, nightmares, and paranoia once being released from isolation. Emanuel said he felt relief when coming out: relief mixed with paranoia. He felt nervous with so many people around him after months of being alone.
It is appalling that the American juvenile system still uses this practice when 62% of youth victims of suicide in prisons have a history of room confinement. Over 50% of victims of suicide were in solitary at the time of their death. Kalief attempted suicide twice while in prison. Both of the attempts were while he was in solitary.
For the last of his teenage years, Kalief was tortured and abused by those assigned to help him. Like many children across America, he brought the horrors from his time in confinement home. The pacing, the wanting to be alone, and the paranoia are all linked to isolation. This past Saturday—at 22— Kalief succeeded in ending his life.
While reading of Kalief’s death, I thought about how fortunate Emanuel was to be able to still talk about his experience. Many youth cannot talk about this horrific time. Many aren’t around to tell their stories. Many of our children are waiting alone in cells across the country for something to change. If and when they are released, like Emanuel, they will carry some burdens with them for the rest of their lives.
This past week I looked through hundreds of letters in support of Senate Bill 124, a bill authored by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) which would limit youth isolation to four hours a day and only allow the use of isolation after less restrictive options have been exhausted. This allows youth to have enough time in their day for education and social stimulation.
The Ella Baker Center, along with Children's Defense Fund-California, Youth Justice Coalition, and California Public Defenders Association, is co-sponsoring this bill to end the mental torture of children in California. These letters told stories of first hand experience in solitary. They told stories from parents of isolated youth. They detailed why we need this now.
In my first days here at EBC, I have witnessed passionate people working and fighting for those who’ve been left behind by society. If you would like to join the movement and fight for our children to be given the chance to mature into mentally healthy adults, you can join us at our next membership meeting in Oakland on June 24 at CompassPoint from 6-8pm. You will have your own chance to write a letter of support for SB 124. I urge everyone to show their support for limiting the torture of our children. They thought it ended in 1913, let’s end it now. No one should be treated this way.