Despite Risks, Adult Jails Are Putting Young People in Solitary Confinement for Their Own Protection – but Is It Doing More Harm than Good?

© William Widmer for The New York Times “He’s actually a good kid inside — he just can’t control his impulses,” Feletha Watson said of her son, Ke’jorium McKnight, 16. He has mental illnesses and has spent much of the past two years in solitary…
© William Widmer for The New York Times “He’s actually a good kid inside — he just can’t control his impulses,” Feletha Watson said of her son, Ke’jorium McKnight, 16. He has mental illnesses and has spent much of the past two years in solitary…

The prisoner spent a fitful August night trying to tune out the howls and moans of inmates in adjoining cells. He did not stir from his thin sleep mat until well after 1 p.m. A breakfast of cold grits waited in a slot in the reinforced steel door.

It was a day like many others he had spent at the Forrest County Jail for much of the past two years — awaiting trial on armed robbery charges, but held in a cell alone for more than 23 hours each day.

The prisoner, Ke’jorium McKnight, is 16 years old. He was kept in solitary confinement not for behavioral reasons or as punishment but because he is being tried as an adult. Under Mississippi law, that means he must be held in an adult jail. And federal law requires that if he is held in an adult jail, he must be kept separate from other inmates, for his own protection.

“I’m always feeling down,” he said in a brief interview at the jail on Aug. 6. “I’m in extreme isolation, and I don’t understand why they would do this to me.”

A week after that meeting with this reporter, Ke’jorium was moved to another wing of the jail, where he is being held with three or four other juveniles, his mother, Feletha Watson, said in an interview on Friday after she met with prosecutors.

Solitary confinement has long been a feature of the nation’s criminal justice system, either to punish or protect inmates, with about 75,000 state and federal prisoners in solitary across the country. Ke’jorium, though, is emblematic of a more select and far less visible group of prisoners in solitary — children or teenagers in isolation in adult jails for their own safety.

“Juveniles are more vulnerable to abuse by adults, including sexual abuse, and they have rights to special protections,” said Ian M. Kysel, an adjunct professor and a fellow at the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. “In some places that might mean putting them in juvenile facilities.”

Putting juveniles in solitary, though, brings its own complications. Solitary confinement is increasingly being questioned — by mental health officials, criminologists and, most recently, President Obama. But experts say its effects on juveniles can be particularly damaging because their minds and bodies are still developing, putting them at greater risk of psychological harm and leading to depression and other mental health problems. In 2012, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry called for an end to the practice.

“There is plenty of research showing that solitary causes far more harm to kids than to their adult counterparts,” said Dr. Louis J. Kraus, the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

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Source: The New York Times | TIMOTHY WILLIAMS

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