California’s decision this month to reform the use of solitary confinement of prisoners brought further attention to the wide-spread use of this medieval method of incarceration. The use of medieval dungeons in U.S. prisons consistently violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Solitary confinement in 21st century prison-dungeons are by design a form of torture that leaves its victims – especially young people – socially and psychologically traumatized for life.
spent more than one thousand days on Rikers waiting for a trial that never happened. During that time, he endured about two years in solitary confinement, where he attempted to end his life several times.
Surveillance videos secured by New Yorker investigative reporter Jennifer Godderman vividly show “an officer assaulting [Kalief] and of a large group of inmates pummeling and kicking him.”
In 2013 Kalief Browder was released from jail when charges were dropped against him for supposedly stealing a backpack. As publicity grew over his unjust imprisonment, there was an outpouring of support for him. But Kalief never recovered from his time in the dungeon: This past June at age 22 Kalief committed suicide.
Kalief Browder’s cruel treatment, however, is not unusual for U.S. jails and prisons. Unfortunately, his decision to commit suicide is not unusual either. Solitary Watch reports that
Juveniles are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than a juvenile detention facility and 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population.
The U.S. regularly violates international justice agreements that it has signed. Diversity and Education describes medieval practices of degradation and torture the U.S. uses in its detention of adolescents, including:
- Solitary confinement 21-24 hours a day despite known research on the negative effects for healthy psychological development
- Life sentences without parole for juveniles – only nation in the world to do so
- Use of shackling as a punishment rather than as a restraint even when not convicted of a crime
- Juvenile court “trials” without legal representation
With increased news attention to this medieval criminal justice justice system, maybe elected local, state, and federal official will take steps to stop the U.S. from being an international outlaw in its mistreatment of juveniles. Simply following a 1990 United Nations resolution would be a good start. In signing onto UN resolution "Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of Their Liberty," the U.S. in principle agreed that
All disciplinary measures constituting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment shall be strictly prohibited, including corporal punishment, placement in a dark cell, closed or solitary confinement or any other punishment that may compromise the physical or mental health of the juvenile concerned.
Continuing attention to U.S. violations of juvenile human rights can be a start to shifting public opinion away from medieval torture techniques and toward more humane treatment and restorative justice for young people.