After years of litigation and protests, earlier this month California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed to drastically reduce the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. But as prison and human rights advocates celebrated the victory, the legislature put on hold a bill that would have curbed the practice in the state’s juvenile detention facilities.
As a former detained youth, I’ve spent time in “the box,” and I know firsthand the damage isolation caused me and other youth subjected to this inhumane and unjust treatment.
I was 16 when I was first sent to solitary confinement. Frustrated and angry at my situation and the treatment I received from staff, I took my anger out on a fellow prisoner and then verbally assaulted a counselor.
I was disciplined for fighting. But while I was used to getting in trouble I was not prepared to face the demons I would encounter in isolation.
A small, freezing concrete room with a toilet and sink became my new home. I could not go to school or church. I did not have proper clothing or even the most basic hygienic supplies.
The first couple of days were easy, but eventually the isolation began to take a toll. I developed insomnia and became increasingly agitated. Without anything to do, talking to myself became my only refuge. I often wondered whether I was better off dead.
I spent much of my time daydreaming, hoping this was all just a nightmare. Those hopes were shattered every time I was let out of my cell for just enough time to shower and stretch. I was lucky if I got an hour outside per day, and felt extremely fortunate if I caught a glimpse of someone other than a correctional officer.
I eventually lost count of my time spent in solitude after 100 days.
Solitary confinement did not rehabilitate me or stop me from returning to jail. What it did do was leave me with a lasting scar in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that I continue to carry with me today.
Senate Bill 124 – co-sponsored by state Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland – would have banned the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, allowing it only when someone presents an immediate threat to themselves or others, and only then if the threat is not the result of a mental disorder.
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