by Kevin W. Bliss
Elected in May 2018 and sworn in seven months later, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina Sheriff Garry McFadden has already made good on campaign promises to restore in-person visits at the local jail and to withdraw the county from the 287(g) program, which included running prisoners’ names through a federal database to determine if they were in the country illegally. In January 2019, McFadden announced another reform: he ended solitary confinement for juvenile offenders at the county jail.
A December 2016 article in the Charlotte Observer documented the use of solitary confinement under former Sheriff Irwin Carmichael, who held juveniles aged 16 to 17 in the jail’s Disciplinary Detention Unit (DDU) for 23 hours a day in 70-square foot, windowless cells without access to visits, phones, televisions or any meaningful contact. They were not even allowed library books.
Former President Barack Obama ended the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody in 2016, citing segregation’s “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.” North Carolina’s Department of Public Safety followed suit the same year, banning solitary for juveniles in state prisons. The state was one of just two – along with New York – that automatically prosecuted 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for felony offenses. Both states have since passed legislation to stop that practice, effective October 2018 in New York and December 2019 in North Carolina.
In 2016, a total of 110 juveniles spent an average of three weeks in the Mecklenburg County jail’s DDU. Many had not yet been convicted of a crime. Eleven were held in the DDU for two months and at least 16 ended up on suicide watch.
Of the juvenile offenders held in the jail that year, 73 percent were black as were 89 percent of those in the DDU. In March 2017, the head of the state chapter of the NAACP called for an investigation.
That same month, the ACLU of North Carolina called on then-Sheriff Carmichael to limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles to a maximum of four hours a day, while allowing them access to visits, phone calls and programming. The ACLU also asked him to provide medical screenings to juveniles before they were placed in DDU, to train jail guards in alternative disciplinary techniques and to limit the number of disciplinary infractions – there were at least 85 at the time – that could land a juvenile in segregation.
But Carmichael pushed back, saying that DDU for “disruptive” juveniles was necessary to ensure that other “youthful offenders, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ staff, volunteers and MSCO (Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office) staff should and expect to feel safe while inside our facilities, [and] to the extent possible, remains [sic] safe at all times.”
In September 2018, after losing the election to McFadden, Sheriff Carmichael announced that juvenile offenders in DDU would get four hours outside their cells instead of one, but only on weekdays. Under standards developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a non-profit devoted to improving children’s lives, juveniles should not be held in isolation for more than four hours a day, and then only for their own benefit – not for punishment.
Studies have shown that solitary confinement can have serious adverse mental health effects, including depression, anxiety, hallucinations, rage and even suicide. The effects have proven to be even more detrimental for juveniles because they are not equipped to handle such stress. Critics call it an inhumane practice and many states have discontinued placing youthful offenders in segregation.
Retired MCSO jail official Karen Simon said in 2017, “I saw them bundled up in a fetal position, crying oftentimes.... It’s torture. And it’s done at the hands of the government.”
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham added, “These are our kids. They’re going to be back in our schools. And what kind of shape will they be in?”
Countered MCSO Captain Jeff Eason at the time, “This is disciplinary detention. We don’t want to make it too comfortable.”
Announcing the end of DDU for juveniles in January 2019, Sheriff McFadden said, “If you continue to disgrace [a youthful offender], and you continue to strip him of his dignity and you never give him a foundation to be a productive citizen – on day 13, when he gets out of the jail, what happens?”
After removing all juveniles from segregation, McFadden is now developing new disciplinary sanctions for those who violate jail rules. He said his goal is not to punish them but to prepare them for their eventual re-entry into society.
In November 2018, a lawsuit filed by the Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes Prison Legal News, ended the practice of solitary confinement for juveniles held at the Palm Beach County jail in Florida. [See: PLN, Jan. 2019, p.28].
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