Morning Zen

Torture by Another Name: The Use of Solitary Confinement on Youth and Young Adults with Mental Health Disorders in New Jersey Prisons

September 13, 2018

In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture deemed the use of solitary confinement against youth and individuals with mental health disabilities as torture.

I was waived to the adult system at the age of 16, and for three years while I was incarcerated in New Jersey prison, I saw and experienced firsthand the impact of solitary on youth and young adults in adult jails and prisons. I watched fellow inmates crumble under the conditions of solitary. Some committed suicide. Others experienced severe depression and anger. No one walks out of that experience feeling whole or somehow better than they were going in.

While in solitary confinement, I spent 23 hours per day — sometimes 23 ½ hours — in a bare cell, and was allowed to leave for 30 minutes a day to bathe or go outside. Often, I was denied time outdoors because, as I was told, the prison lacked enough staff to monitor me while the other inmates were on lockdown. Alone in my room, surrounded by stark walls and a tiny window above my line of vision, I had access only to a list of approved books that were heavily censored and kept the knowledge and wisdom of the outside world out of my reach.

Denying individuals any and all access to resources meant to preserve their mental and physical health during incarceration is not rehabilitative, and holding youth, many of whom are suffering from mental illness like myself, in solitary for months and years at a time, is beyond punitive; it is torture. Making a mistake does not justify stripping young people of their humanity. As humans, we need social interaction; we need care; we need touch; we need love. As young people, we need mentors who understand the communities we are coming from, as well as teachers and staff who aim to lift us up in a system that has locked us down.

I have been a member of the New Jersey Parents’ Caucus (NJPC) NJ Youth Caucus for three years, one of which I was incarcerated, and continue to work with NJPC on mental health and juvenile justice reform, representing our state in Washington DC.

In a recent release, The Solitary Confinement of Youth with Mental Health Disabilities in New Jersey Adult Prisons, we compiled statements and survey responses from young people on their experiences in solitary confinement in adult prison. The brief highlights key issues facing youth held in solitary confinement such as the disproportionate number of youth of color and youth with disabilities held in these conditions for long periods of time. While Black youth are 17% of the youth population in New Jersey, they were 73% of the youth reporting time in solitary confinement in NJPC’s survey.

With this brief, we call on the New Jersey legislature to pass a law ending the use of solitary confinement against youth and young adults in New Jersey prisons. Bills like A. 314, which was introduced in January 2018, are a step in the right direction toward ending the systematic torture of solitary confinement against young people. It is difficult to fully express all of the injustices that thrive in a system that makes young people invisible to the outside, vulnerable to those working on the inside, and voiceless to those in charge of guaranteeing our safety. However, we have the power to change this reality. Contact your state senators and representatives and urge them to allow suffering to make way for healing for hundreds of New Jersey youth and young adults.

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About the Author

Duvall Ricks

Duvall Ricks, 26, is a member of the NJPC Youth Caucus and NJPC Youth Advocate. NJPC’s NJ Youth Caucus is comprised of youth and young adults (15-27 years of age), who have current or prior involvement in the juvenile justice and mental health systems and are committed to providing leadership opportunities for impacted youth and family members involved in systems reform on all levels of decision-making.

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