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Philadelphia must stop holding children in adult jails

June 12, 2018

By Michelle Mason and Lauren Fine, for the Inquirer

When “J” was 16, he was arrested and charged as an adult. Despite his young age, he was sent to an adult jail, as is the current practice for all youths facing adult charges in Philadelphia and as described in detail in a recent Inquirer and Daily News story

Over 19 months of pretrial incarceration, before he was convicted of any crime, J was put in solitary confinement on seven separate occasions. The first time, he spent seven days in the hole. On each subsequent trip, he was in isolation for 30 days or more. In all, J spent more than six months in solitary. During that time, he was alone in a cell for 23 hours a day (24 hours, on some days), permitted to shower only a few times per week, and denied visits and phone calls with his family.

We wish that J’s experience was an anomaly, but it’s not. Despite a 2016 pledge from jail administrators to end the practice, the Inquirer and Daily News recently reported that long-term solitary confinement was imposed on youths in Philadelphia’s adult jails 70 times, for an average of 32 days, from January 2017 through March 2018. The devastating effects of solitary confinement on youths are well known. Just last week was the third anniversary of the death of Kalief Browder, who took his own life having never fully recovered from the two-plus years he spent as a teenager in solitary confinement on Rikers Island in New York.

Solitary confinement is merely one symptom of the cruel and inhumane practice of incarcerating children in adult jails and prisons. Studies confirm what common sense tells us: young people are safer, and do better, when they are in age-appropriate settings with other youth. The community is safer as well.

Although they are separated from adults, youths detained in adult jails are significantly more likely than those in juvenile facilities to experience physical abuse at the hands of guards and other prisoners, and to be victims of sexual assault. In addition, over the last two years, there have been multiple instances of youths attempting or threatening suicide while housed in Philadelphia’s adult jails. These cases show just how profoundly ill-equipped Philadelphia’s adult jails are to house children.

When jail staff believe that a youth may be suicidal, that young person is transferred to a psychiatric unit in another jail, where he or she may be kept half-naked and freezing in isolation for days—if not weeks—at a time, as documented by the Inquirer and Daily News in 2017.

According to our estimates, more than half of youths charged as adults in Philadelphia are eventually transferred to the juvenile system through legal proceedings — after spending a few months to more than a year in adult jail. Since exposure to the adult system can increase the recidivism rates among youth by between 34 percent and 77 percent, what is gained by holding them in adult jails?

Our organizations have seen how harmful adult jails can be for children, and we — along with Juvenile Law Center and the Youth Art and Self-empowerment Project — have been urging city officials to stop this practice. If the court orders a child awaiting trial to be detained, we urge that the child be held with other children at the Juvenile Justice Services Center. In this new era of increased criminal justice reform in our city, now is the perfect moment to make this change.

Over the last year, we have been encouraged by the collaborative working relationship that has been built between our organizations and the city. But recently, we were disappointed to learn that the city is relocating youths facing adult charges from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC) to the Riverside Correctional Facility (RCF), the city’s jail for adult women, without input from relevant stakeholders. The move appears to be part of the city’s efforts to create additional bed space in anticipation of its closure of the antiquated House of Corrections. We do not expect this move to improve the well-being of children in detention, or public safety.

Our city can and must do better. Other jurisdictions across the country have recognized the destructive impact of holding children in adult facilities. Several states and large cities — like New Orleans, Chicago, Kentucky, Ohio, New Jersey, West Virginia, and many more — require or presume that youth charged as adults be held in juvenile facilities. These jurisdictions have recognized their moral obligation to do the best they can with children in their care. Philadelphia should follow their lead.

Michelle Mason is director of the juvenile special-defense division at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. The Defender Association represents the majority of children charged with crimes and advocates for the rights of those charged as adults. Lauren Fine is the co-founder and co-director of the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project. YSRP supports court-appointed and other attorneys handling cases where youths are charged as adults.

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