An image from the documentary Prison Kids
Fusion  

It’s time to end the practice of putting juveniles in solitary confinement.

That was the message the makers of the new Fusion Investigative Unit documentary Prison Kids had for Washington, D.C., Wednesday as they held screenings on Capitol Hill and at the Motion Picture Association of America’s theater space in downtown D.C.

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Right now the United States imprisons more youths than any other country, with 60,000 children currently sitting in our nation’s jails. Most of those children—two out of three—are in for nonviolent offenses, often actions for which an adult who did them wouldn’t face arrest, like insubordination and running away from home. And most of those children locked up—80 percent of them—are black or Latino, even though African Americans and Latinos make up only 13 and 17 percent of the U.S. population respectively. 

The film, Prison Kids, which will premiere on Fusion Sunday, Oct. 4, addresses these disparities through the stories of young people who were once caught up in the system, as well as the story of one young boy with behavioral issues whose mother fears he could end up in the juvenile-justice system without intervention.

More than 150 people gathered in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center to watch a snippet of Prison Kids and to listen to Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) speak on the issue of kids and solitary confinement. Booker most recently introduced the Mercy Act in August, a piece of legislation that would ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal system. 

“It can trigger mental-health problems; it could cause mental-health problems. And when you see the evidence of solitary confinement, you would think that it’s being used as a punishment, that this is a tool that we can use for corrective action, but the data now shows that people who come out of solitary confinement—juveniles or adults—don’t have any [difference] in their getting in trouble after they get out,” Booker said. He also criticized the practice for “not even necessarily accomplishing what you want to accomplish.”

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As he spoke with Fusion’s Alicia Menendez, Booker, paraphrasing Frederick Douglass, said that “it is easier to build strong children than to heal broken men.”

He also expressed concern that with the numerous lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths caught up in the juvenile-justice system, children who have often already being victimized or targeted for their sexuality are being targeted again with solitary confinement. “Often those most vulnerable, most often victimized, are now put into a situation where they’re being victimized more through practices like solitary confinement,” Booker said.

After Booker spoke, Menendez led a panel discussion on juvenile justice, mass incarceration and the legislative effort to change our justice system. Van Jones, president and co-founder of #cut50—a group focused on cutting the U.S. incarceration rate in half—was on the panel and said it would take “massive pressure” to get laws regarding mass incarceration changed on the state and federal levels.

“The door is now unlocked because you don’t have this partisan standoff where Democrats pretend they want to do something but they’re scared of the Republicans,” Jones said to The Root. “Now nobody can say they’re scared of anybody, so the door’s unlocked, but you still have to push the door open, and that’s going to take massive pressure from all sides because the status quo is always hard to change.”

Jennifer Bellamy of the American Civil Liberties Union, who was also on the panel, praised the film, telling The Root that it connected the policy she has been pushing for with the kids who would be most affected.

“I’ve been doing advocacy on these issues for a number of years, but so frequently it’s easy to disconnect the policy that we are working on from the children that it impacts,” Bellamy said. “One little girl in that film said kids make mistakes, that’s what they do, but their whole lives shouldn’t be thrown away as a result of it, and I just completely agree. That’s what this is all about: making sure that our kids are not thrown away, making sure that they receive the resources and support that they need in order to become responsible citizens as adults.”

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Later on Wednesday, at the MPAA event, Fusion investigative reporter and producer Alissa Figueroa, who made Prison Kids, spoke with The Root about her work on the film and the biggest takeaways she hoped those viewing the documentary would have.

“At the end of the day, America is locking up the most vulnerable kids that we have,” Figueroa said. “Where there has been reform to fix the system, it’s been substantial, but you still see kids who are mentally ill, and black and brown kids ending up there more than anyone else. And a lot of places where they have had reform, the disparities have gone up. It’s good that the system is getting fixed, but the reform hasn’t been for everyone, and I think that’s the main thrust of the piece. Who are we putting in the system, and what do we want to happen long term from that?”