ACT-Syracuse ends solitary confinement for youth

Posted by: Gordon on 10/29/2015
ACTS Syracuse solitary cell pic
Tim Kirkland, an ACT-Syracuse criminal justice task force leader, speaks in front of the mock solitary confinement cell where the group had planned to highlight the county's abusive confinement of 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. The county announced at the news conference it was reversing its position.  

While New York State is still at odds over whether to treat 16- and 17-year-olds like youth or adults in its prison system, some 35 young people won’t have to face solitary confinement in Syracuse's county prison anymore.

In the end, leaders of ACT-Syracuse who announced a news conference where they would begin witnessing on the issue by entering a 6-by-9-foot solitary confinement “cell” did not need to spend a week, or even a day, in the cell to make their case.

Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney attended the event to say that after considering their arguments, she had decided to move youth under age 18 to an alternative facility and end the practice of putting them in solitary--which many had faced for as much as 23 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Grace Church, a member of ACTS that operates a restorative justice ministry, first alerted leaders to the fact youth has been moved to the facility and routinely received solitary confinement punishments. The group prioritized advocating for an end to the practice because it is so inhuman and because the damage to people who experience solitary so well documented

“During my days locked in I battled suicidal thoughts, I talked with myself every day to remain focused, I refused to become what I had seen,” a 17-year-old who was recently released shared with the group (anonymously, to avoid legal repercussions). “To keep above the water is major. This is why incarcerated minds need hope, fair treatment and another option.”

Last spring leaders began to research the issue, criminal justice task force co-chair Mike Hungerford said. They filed a Freedom of Information request, met with corrections officials, and began to understand a system in which overcrowding at one local facility had pushed the youth to a new site and led to the abusive practice.

“Rikers has an average about 500 youth in New York City. They don’t do it anymore," Hungerford told a local radio station. "If they can figure out how not to do it at Rikers, it seems to me that Onondaga County ought to be able to.”

Hungerford and ACTS Criminal Justice Task Force will monitor the relocation and ensure that officials provide restorative programs and services in the county jail, where the youth will now be held. They also are considering where to go next, addressing solitary confinement of adults, join the nationwide movement to end mass incarceration, or address the related core social issues of poverty. Leaders of ACTS believe incarceration is both a symptom of poverty, and a contributing factor to keeping individuals and communities of color in a perpetual state of poverty.

ACTS remains an active participant in a statewide group which is continuing their push to pass legislation that will treat 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, join the nationwide movement to end mass incarceration and address core social issues of poverty.

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