The State has locked them up in a 6ft cell and thrown away the key. Juveniles and Solitary Confinement in Florida.
With the current interest both in the USA and Europe in the practice of keeping inmates in solitary confinement, I thought I would share some of the thoughts and issues raised by some of the juveniles in Florida who have been sentenced to life without parole and who have spent time in solitary confinement.
Over the last two years I have worked with young men, who were all sentenced to Life Without Parole for non-homicide offenses they committed as juveniles. Most pleaded guilty to the offenses, thinking that they would get a plea deal, and all ended up with the maximum sentence the court court give. While the offenses for which they were sentenced should not be diminished, in at least two of the cases it is questionable whether the young men were actually responsible for the offenses. However, in these cases, both confessed, and their appeals against conviction have been heard and dismissed, so that avenue of argument is no longer open to them. What is open to them is the right to ask the court for another sentencing hearing due to the fact the US Supreme Court in Florida vs. Graham ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of their sentence being reviewed to take into account their maturity.
One of the young men has to be one of the most difficult clients I have dealt with in my 20+ years of working in the criminal justice system. He frustrates me beyond belief, but every time I am at the end of my patience with him, I pick up the report prepared for his appeal against his sentence, which details the first 15 dysfunctional years of his life, and then his time in jail and prison, including extended periods of time in solitary (in some years he spent 10 or 11 months in solitary, only to spend a few weeks in general population, and then be sent straight back to solitary due to his behavior towards other inmates or corrections officers). I have calculated that of his total 12 years incarcerated, he has spent 8 of those in solitary confinement. The State gave up on him 12 years ago, locked him in a 6ft cell and threw away the key, I will not allow myself to so the same.
In all of the cases I have dealt with the offenses have been serious – rapes, armed robberies, and attempted murders. All the juveniles were treated as adults by the courts and therefore were detained in adult jails prior to conviction. All were experiencing jail for the first time and were held in solitary confinement during their time in jail. This was justified as providing protection to the juveniles, however in reality it was the start of a regime which dehumanized them. With 24 hour a day lock up for most days, these juveniles who were still in the process of developing and maturing were denied any contact with anyone other than the corrections officer who escorted them to the exercise yard two or three times a week, or less if it was raining. Even their exercise was taken in isolation, hence no chance to play basketball or bond with others experiencing the jail system for the first time. Peer contact which is so important to an adolescent’s development was denied, and even visits from family and friends did not provide the support and nurturing and reassurance required by most adolescents, due to the glass separating them from their visitor.
The recurring comments which came from these juveniles was that they gave up at this stage, they no longer had any interest in their case, or what their lawyers were telling them. They just wanted the isolation to stop. They wanted to get out of the tiny cell, painted grey, without windows, and where they were totally cut off from the outside World. Two of these juveniles attempted suicide in their early years in jail.
The fact that cases can take years to come to trial in Florida added to the despair of these inmates. The idea of having to spend the next four or five years in these conditions was a strong factor in some of them deciding to plead guilty. One inmate stated “if I pled guilty I knew I would go to prison and into general pop[ulation]’. Hence a motivating factor in these plea decisions was not whether they were guilty or innocent, but that they would be able to associate with others if they pleaded guilty.
For the majority of these inmates, home life and the family bond had not been very strong prior to them being incarcerated, and could possibly be argued as one of the reasons they had ended up being charged with these offenses in the first place. The longer the inmates languished in jail, the less they received visits from their family and friends. It is a recurring problem for the juveniles facing Life Without Parole, that those on the inside are cut off by those on the outside who want to get on with their lives, and give up hope of the inmate ever being released. In fact, with the exception of one of the inmates I have met, the only family contact is a birthday and christmas card and the occasional $30 added to the inmate’s commissary account.
While many of the juveniles had minor mental health problems when they first entered the jail system, mainly due to drug abuse, they did not exhibit serious mental health problems. However, by the time they were sentenced, over half had been assessed as having poor cognitive reasoning and exhibiting anti-social behavior, all of which was deemed to be a factor in justifying sentencing a juvenile aged 13 to spent the rest of their life in prison with no opportunity of a parole review. Never was it considered by the court that the reason the juvenile was exhibiting this behavior was due to the State incarceration. The State had given up on these juveniles, they were described by the Prosecutors as ‘bad’ or ‘untreatable’ or ‘damaged beyond repair’. Even worse, in most cases the defense lawyer did not stand up for their client and say that the State’s solitary confinement was the problem. If the lawyers had also given up on these juveniles, who else was going to care.
Florida vs. Graham was decided in May 2010. By this time, most of the juveniles sentenced to Life Without Parole had become adults. The task when trying to persuade the courts to reduce the sentence of these inmates is to show the courts that they are no longer dangerous and can be released back into society. That is not an easy task when the State has managed to dehumanize these young men, has made then anti-social. How can a young man who has experienced sustained periods of solitary confinement in prison, with nothing more than one hour of recreational time once every forty days, be expected to fit back into society and live and mix around his peers?
Psychiatric evaluations of these inmates now all indicate that they exhibit psychiatric problems – no wonder considering the way they have been treated and the lack of diagnosis and medication they receive in prison. These psychiatric problems provide the Prosecution with the justification for arguing that the inmate should remain in prison. The US Supreme court decision was that a Life Without Parole sentence for juveniles is unconstitutional, it did not say that a 70 or 80 year sentence is unconstitutional, not did it say that consecutive sentences were unconstitutional. Hence the fear that in some of these cases a Life Without Parole sentence will be replaced with two 40 year sentences, to be served consecutively.
During one visit with a prison inmate, he described to me the fact that since he had heard about his appeal, he had worked hard on his behavior and had requested that he be moved out of the highest level of confinement (CMI), to the second level (there are three levels of confinement in Florida state prisons). He was so pleased with himself as he was moved to the 2nd confinement level (CMII) and this meant he could go to the tv room f our times a week, and was allowed a two hour visit each time. He had not seen the tv for the previous two years due to being in CMI, where only a radio was allowed, and where he was only allowed 3 books a week and no commissary items other than stamps and writing paper. Sadly, a few days after my visit, he had an argument with another inmate, who he said stole his potato chips, and ended up back in CMI, where he remains to this day.
While the actions of the Senators in their review are encouraging, it does nothing for the forgotten incarcerated youth, who have entered adulthood as a prison number, with no one but themselves for company, in a space where they can stand in the middle of the room and touch the walls both sides, and where daylight is something rarely seen, and when they do see it, they can do little more than shuffle into it as they are shackled hands and feet.
Click here for the Florida Statute on Close Confinement/Solitary Confinement and the restrictions it places on the inmate ☞ Close%20Management%20Statute