This article was published in partnership with Caught, the new podcast on juvenile justice from WNYC Studios and the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal-justice system. Sign up for its newsletter or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
When the police approached Imani and her friends outside a Syracuse, N.Y., dollar store in 2016, she wasn’t worried—she didn’t believe they had done anything wrong. But a clerk at the store had accused the group of stealing, and Imani, then 16 years old, was arrested and charged with robbery. Unable to afford bail, she waited for her day in court in a maximum security adult jail.
Imani, petite and wiry, is small for her age. At the Onondaga County Justice Center, she was constantly cold, the single jail-issued blanket doing little to keep her warm. After arguing with a guard over a grievance she had filed, she was promptly moved to the solitary confinement wing of the jail, she said. Her meals were fed to her through a slot in the door and her recreation time was spent outside in what seemed like “a cage for a dog,” Imani said. The Marshall Project and WNYC are not using her real name because her juvenile record is sealed.
“I’m ready to come home,” she said she thought to herself as hours turned to days in isolation. The Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, referred calls to a county spokesman, who did not respond to requests for comment.
Solitary confinement is not allowed for inmates younger than 18 at federal and state-run facilities in New York, but for teens like Imani—held in a county jail, waiting for their cases to be heard—it’s a common practice. Local jails use solitary as punishment, and since many counties rarely have separate facilities for juveniles, isolation cells are also routinely used as holding cells for minors.
“It made me feel like nothing, like an animal,” Imani said of her 32 days spent in solitary. “Can’t call nobody, can’t talk to nobody. You just feel worthless.” (In the above video, Imani was estimating how much time she spent in solitary confinement.)
Perhaps most well-known is the case of Kalief Browder, a Bronx, N.Y., 16-year-old charged with stealing a backpack who spent three years at New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail complex.
He passed more than two years of that time in solitary confinement, steadfastly maintaining his innocence. Eventually the charges were dismissed and Browder was released, but his time in solitary had caused significant mental health issues.
He committed suicide at 22 years old in 2015, just two years after his release. His case garnered national attention and eventually led the New York City Department of Correction to ban the use of solitary confinement for inmates under 18.
Yet outside of New York City, teenagers held in jail often don’t warrant special treatment. A Marshall Project review of the 10 counties outside of New York City that detain the most juveniles in the state shows that at least seven allow holding juveniles in solitary. The remaining three did not respond to inquiries.
In 2016, the last year for which records are available, more than 3,700 16- and 17-year-olds were held in jail in New York’s 57 counties outside of the five counties making up New York City. It is difficult to know precisely how many are placed in isolation because county jails are not required to track the age of inmates locked in isolation.
In recent years, studies have revealed the damaging effects of solitary on all prisoners, including anxiety and an increased risk of self-harm and suicide. “Social deprivation is not a good practice for anybody,” said Dr. Carly Baetz, an assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at New York University’s School of Medicine. Incarceration is hard, but “isolation alone is a traumatic experience,” she said.
The risks are worse for teenagers, who are still developing intellectually and emotionally.
“You’re just surrounded by four walls with a dim light—no cellmate, no commissary, no pictures of your family,” said Jordan, who was 16 when he was arrested on burglary charges and detained at the Onondaga County Justice Center in 2015. “All you can think about is death, because you feel like you’re gone already.” The Marshall Project is also using his middle name.
Jordan tried to sleep through his first day in solitary. “The second day, waking up to my door slot being opened, was probably the worst sound I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said.
Josh Cotter, an attorney with Legal Services of Central New York, has led several lawsuits across the state challenging the use of isolation for teenagers in jails, especially those who have not been convicted of any crime. “Kids just aren’t little adults—they’re kids,” he said. “They have different needs.”
When Imani arrived at the Justice Center in 2016, the jail was already burned into her mind as the place where her stepsister had died in 2009 from an ectopic pregnancy. She had repeatedly asked officers for medical attention. “They didn’t care, they didn’t do nothing,” Imani said. The county settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the family for $385,000.
Imani didn’t know what to expect. “I was just 16,” she said. “I ain’t know.”
Even after her release, she felt the effects of solitary lingering. “You still feel like an animal sometimes,” said Imani, who is now 18 and thinking about getting her GED diploma.
In 2016, Cotter sued the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office and the Syracuse City School District. The Justice Center, Cotter claimed, routinely used isolation as discipline for minor misbehavior. One teen was placed in solitary for banging on his cell door to get the deputy’s attention so he could tell him he felt suicidal. Others were put in solitary for singing, talking loudly and wearing shower shoes outside the shower.
Once in isolation, the teens no longer had phone privileges, couldn’t go to school and received only one hour outside of their barren cell each day.
Jordan was one of the lead plaintiffs in Cotter’s case. When the jail didn’t allow him to go to school while in solitary, it was a “slap in the face, saying that they didn’t care about any possible future for me,” Jordan said. “It really hurts your brain and your soul because all you can think about is you not leaving that cell.”
The county settled the case in 2017, agreeing to significantly limit the use of solitary confinement, develop a system that rewards good behavior and improve education services.
“Young people don’t respond well to punitive threats,” said Alex Frank of the Vera Institute’s Center on Youth Justice. “They respond to being recognized when they’re doing something well.”
Among the nearly two dozen local jail officials who responded to questions from the Marshall Project, many said that solitary confinement isn’t just used as punishment. It’s often necessary so jails can comply with a federal anti-rape law requiring that minors be kept out of “sight and sound” from adults.
“Our biggest problem is housing them,” said Steven VanCise, a lieutenant at the Cortland County Jail. “We don’t have a block for them, so it’s a headache.”
In 2017, New York passed legislation that raised the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, creating a new class of adolescent offenders and requiring that they be housed in specially certified facilities. The state has allocated millions of dollars to update facilities for sentenced teens, but it’s unclear what will happen for 16- and 17-year-olds who are awaiting court.
“We have no beds in this county,” said Joseph Gerace, sheriff of Chautauqua County. “We have to house them in special housing units that are not there.”
Late last year, the state Commission of Correction, which oversees county jails, proposed new regulations for solitary confinement: It would still be allowed for teens, but with stricter guidelines and more required documentation.
Jails would have to allow teens four hours out of their cells and two hours of exercise. However, if jail staffers deemed the teen to be a risk to the safety or “good working order” of the facility, those hours out of the cell could be denied.
Facilities would also have to document any time solitary was used for a minor and provide written justification for denying a minor access to school for each school day missed. The proposal is awaiting final approval.
In the meantime, counties continue to use different strategies for teenagers. Some, with limited space, send teens over to another county, paying for each night spent in the receiving county.
Others try a seemingly simple solution—keeping teens out of jail.
“If you’re a kid coming to jail, we’re working hard to get you out,” said Chris Ivers, the jail administrator in Allegany County, where only 14 percent of arrested teens are admitted to the jail. “You shouldn’t be here.”
Jordan, who is now looking for a job, agrees. “The first day they enter jail is the last day that they can remain a child,” he said.
With additional reporting by Courtney Stein, David Jeans and Sophia Paliza-Carre.