At the end of May, Richard Ross, Juvenile In Justice Executive Director, spent 24 hours in solitary confinement in a juvenile detention facility in the midwest. Below a video and a reflection text document his experience.
Across the U.S, children spend days and months in solitary confinement. In 2011, the ACLU found that more than 95,000 children spent time in solitary confinement. In a subsequent report, the ACLU writes, “This bare social and physical existence makes many young people feel doomed and abandoned, or in some cases, suicidal, and can lead to serious physical and emotional consequences.” This video documents Richard Ross’ experience of 24 hours in isolation in a juvenile detention facility in the midwest. In this facility, as with many others, every child who comes through the door spends their first 24 hours in isolation.
The ACLU has launched a campaign calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to ban the solitary confinement of children in federal custody held in juvenile facilities. Their petition, which explains the situation and how to take action, is here: https://www.aclu.org/secure/mothers-plea-stop-solitary-confinement-children
[superquote] Take Action Now: Petition Attorney General Eric Holder to ban the solitary confinement of children in federal custody held in juvenile facilities: aclu.org/secure/mothers-plea-stop-solitary-confinement-children [/superquote]
Reflection on detention
I am my mid 60s I am white. I know when I am going into a cell and I know when I am going out. If I ever want to panic I can press a metallic button 18 inches to the right of the steel door and a line officer will come and release me. In the great picture of this arena, I control the situation. Mine is a voluntary experience.
This action of experiencing isolation is not a gimmick, the caprice of an artist. It is not enough to understand that it exists; you have to experience it to feel the destructive force of this isolation, impotence a total lack of control of your future. It is not enough to interview children from across a barren room, you have to hear the echoes, shiver in the cold, shelter from the random light, beg for any filtered daylight, taste the texture of the food, smell the warm milk and the urine and hope for a reasonable allotment of toilet paper. You can’t read this and understand.
The kids that are placed in here write a different disclaimer. Around the country the rules are different but the institution defines and controls confinement not the detainee. The kid is usually unsure when they are going in or out of this room, and across the country the rules within the room vary. It is also important to remember that the word “detainee” means one who is detained. One who has their freedom impaired. It is not the same as someone convicted, although in many cases they share the category of prisoner.
I wanted to experience it, so I began my 24. In this particular institution, I am not alone. All the kids coming in are placed in isolation for their first 24 hours. The reason is for them to calm down, often they are described as being under influence, and the time required for processing means the child might have to be segregated to be safe from themselves and others. The institution wants to “understand” the child.
I am given my uniform and bedding. The mattress is about two inches thick and covered in the same slippery vinyl cloth that covers the pillow. There is a thin pillowcase, a gauzy piece of thin fabric about 6 x 3 feet. This may be a sheet bottom or a towel. Unsure. There is a slightly heavier piece of fabric, white-same dimensions. Additionally there is a white blanket of unwoven felting that has a few holes in it and a random edge. As an object it is pretty nice, very raw and almost like an organic baby blanket. Contrasting there is a smaller woven dark blanket as a second covering. I am not sure what goes where or how. Clothing consists of orange sandals, which after an hour, the officer says are not allowed in the cell, but for showering…which I missed due to the hour of my entry. I am given a Styrofoam hot dog tray case with a toothbrush, toothpaste and mini deodorant. Also issued are black sneakers with two Velcro straps. I wear a size 13 shoes and both sets of footwear are enormous on me. There is a pair of underwear size 2X a pair of exercise shorts, which fit snuggly over the pillow and make it a bit more comfortable. A long sleeve white tee shirt, white tube socks and a short sleeve tan jumpsuit, 8 snaps down the front and one chest level pocket. The underwear is “Made in Pakistan,” exceptionally thin and is so large it feels like a combination swami’s shorts and an infant diaper. It is constantly falling down within the jumpsuit. The jump suit is equally enormous and necessity dictates that I roll up the cuffs and tuck into the socks to prevent tripping. The white T-shirt has a label “Made in El Salvador.” Suitably attired. I now deal with the cold. It is a concrete room about 7 ft. 4 inches square in the basic part with a small entryway about 3×4 feet at the door. The ceiling is 8 feet in height. The wall is an off white with blue trim on the two vertical windows. Slats about 5 feet across and each four inches high. The window overlooks a parking lot to the left and an industrial building with a fan unit on the right.
There is a fluorescent light in the room, controlled from the outside. It goes on an off at random times. Lights off at 10PM, on at 7AM. They go off again at about 11AM, on again at 3PM. No explanation. There is no clock. The bed is a blue steel platform bolted into the wall at three points. There is the same blue paint on the shelf at about 5 foot off the ground and inscribed ToriH. The same incision put on the windowsill and scratched into the stainless steel tabletop cantilevered from the wall next to the bed and about 18” x 30” on top and about 30” high. There is a round stool that is about 13” off the ground that make eating or reading at the table the act of an infant.
There are four buttons near the front of the room for differing purpose. There is the emergency button, two buttons in the porcelain sink, one for hot, one for cold…. but the temperature in both is cold. The final button flushes the toilet. With no control over the world I now inhabit the only control I have is the ability to flush away my excrement. Coming into this world to try and understand better what it is to be here…. in some sense to have this small level of enlightenment. I quickly realize that the only control I have is my shit. And even then I have to request toilet paper from the guard, a somewhat humiliating experience. The guards are white, black, male, female, short and tall. All are wearing black “SWAT” uniforms.
I ask one Line officer what time it is and the response is “13:50.” Somehow I feel this is a time that implies power and authority as if there is a secret and special code. Would I kid know what “13:50” means? Is the guard trying to intimidate me by telling me he is ex military or know how to read a 24-hour clock? The guards check on the kids every 15 minutes. I am checked every hour or so. They look for skin and then look for movement. They want to make sure I am in here and alive. They inquire “everything OK? Need anything?” I am not sure if this is a question extended to all the guests. The toiletries kit (toothbrush and paste) never made it into the cell, so I ask the guard for it. He allows the door open and when I step out-side he barks “hands behind your back.” He has forgotten I am a voluntary guest and adult, so did I. When he returns those ten steps with the toothbrush I return across the threshold of the cell and the 24 begins in earnest.
Dinner is a brown tray with a center section containing two corn dogs, a slice of bread, 2 mini packets of mustard, some rectangular pasta pieces to the left, peas on the top right. There is a packet of pepper, a spork, a glass of water and no napkin. I eat a part of one of one of the corn dogs and the peas. Drink the water.-Leave the chocolate milk.
It is cold. Best guess would be about 65 degrees. Not terrible if you have all the blankets, but normally you have the blankets when you are in bed, so it inhibits moving around the cell—unless you don’t mind looking like a Lebanese sheepherder. The light is out at ten. The only sense left is the noise and sort of underwater belch that announces that a door is opening to C pod where I am houses. Phones ring in the night and there are other echoing noises. No noises from the outside.
7AM the lights are on and the knock announces breakfast. The same brown tray. To the left on soft-boiled egg. Right is a layer of cheerios, a ½ pint of apple juice and a pint of 1% skimmed milk. Some form of a coffee cake in the center, no coffee. It dawns of me, I am not going to have any coffee. My headache begins the moment of this epiphany. I eat the egg. Drink the apple juice. Leave most of the rest.
I read the bible. That is what I am allowed. I had little tolerance for it previously, not I am reading for diversity. In the beginning…..I read it as a passage of time. It is a diversion. Still never transcends to moderately entertaining blustery mythology and not that entertaining at that. I spend some time looking out the window and remember the countless hours my mother would look out the window from a perch high up in Brooklyn. As I am recalling that with some affection I remember her saying on many occasions, “are you crazy or just out of your mind?” when I would tell her what I was doing. This would no doubt be at the top of her list. But there is a reason and hopefully she would understand, and even my dad. I am not looking for any redemption here but I do think of family when I think of kids probably having spent the previous night in their bed at home now doing their 24 as they are being processed for a longer stay.
I think of the African American girl, the only one in an institution holding 49 other girls all white telling me that her back hurts after her 72 of not being able to lie down during the day. Or the Latino boy held in a cell that the director told me limits their stay to 16 hours, but he report to me that he has been there more than 3 days. Another kid, in California who tells me he is in ISO going on eight weeks. I am trying to picture them all and see what this room means. “Seventy-two” is a pretty standard coding in the US for a three-day hold in solitary confinement. Sometimes call ISO, or Seg or AS-Administrative Segregation. It has different names for different reasons. But the end result is this room and the smell and the sounds and the cold and the boredom and the fear and the despair and the lack of control and this room.
Lunch is tuna noodle casserole with rigatoni noodles. There is a lot of it and the major crime here is that a tuna should have died for this miserable dish. Accompanying the casserole are square cut carrots about the size of a pinky nail, some pineapple like product, two pieces of bread, a glass of water and a pint of chocolate milk.
Tori H must have eat quite a few meals here to allow her the time to incise her signature on at least three places. I wonder what tool she had or if she used a fingernail and great patience. She must have had more.
In sitting here I can see in the far end if I put my head to one side of the slit in the window some kids walking by in the hallway about 50 feet away. I can only glimpse them but most are black and brown. I wonder about the world we are living in where kids are locked up here. To paraphrase Doug Nelson, We have racialised poverty. To some extent we have not only racialized it but now we have criminalized the results.
Having all kids put into isolation while being processed is a policy that creates minority rule. If only 12% of children are actually detained for person on person offenses and our policy is defined those kids. We are condemning the majority for the sake of the minority. This may not be unlike the U.S. Congress and its ineffectiveness debilitated by a minority.
When I speak with the director about my experience here. I write a check for $346.22 to the juvenile detention center to cover what the costs of a child in custody for a day. He is a concerned well-intentioned person that wants to help these kids. He shares that he is considering putting clock in all the pods. As I download my notes, I take some aspirin to counteract the thinness of the mattress lack of caffeine in my system. I imagine with an unknown future either with a clock that reads ten until two or 13:50 still does not address the problem. The length of time is not the issue. The existence of this cell in our society is the problem. Philip Magnolo former director of U.S. Interagency council of homelessness. (Appointed by Bush in 2002) said; “You do not manage a social wrong. You should be ending it.”