About two years ago, Omar Banos was incarcerated at San Francisco Juvenile Hall in what’s called a Limited Program.
That meant he was alone for 22 hours each day. Banos, who was 16 at the time, claims he was alone when he worked out in the courtyard, ate meals and talked with other inmates through the air vents in his room.
Some say that in all but name, Banos was locked up in solitary confinement for two months. It was punishment for an incident that happened the month before in which he and a 12-year-old cell mate escaped from the facility the night of April 15, 2013.
After his capture, Banos was returned to Juvenile Hall and placed in solitary — a practice the California Probation Officers Association in April 2014 said wasn’t used at state youth detention facilities.
But Banos’ claims, backed in part by documents, suggest that wasn’t the case at The City’s Juvenile Hall. The current juvenile probation head also doesn’t deny the possibility it happened.
Banos had already been incarcerated more than a dozen times by age 16. On his 18th time, police picked him up after curfew one night on probation violations in the Mission. He’d been kicked out of his girlfriend’s home by her mother around 10 p.m.
Banos was booked into Juvenile Hall around 3 a.m. April 15, 2013. Within hours, he began hatching his escape plan. As he sat on the toilet in his cell, the teen rested his arm on a handicap bar to his side and “it jiggled just a little bit.”
“But that little bit of jiggle, it just gave me the biggest hope in the world,” Banos, now 18, told the San Francisco Examiner.
Banos and his 12-year-old cell mate spent the next roughly nine hours kicking the handicap bar until it came loose from the wall around 7 p.m. Using the handicap bar, Banos busted a baseball-size hole in the window. He wrapped his hands with blankets and pulled at the shards.
Banos shoved the 12-year-old through the window face first, and he followed. Once outside, the pair burst into a full-sprint and scaled a 20-foot high perimeter fence, and then an 8-foot high fence. Still dressed in their jail-issued outfits, they hopped a Muni train from West Portal station and went to the 12-year-old’s home.
The younger boy was captured first. About three weeks after their escape, police went to Banos’ mother’s home in Hunters Point and returned him to jail.
Minors in solitary
After returning to Juvenile Hall after the escape, Banos claims he was kept in isolation for 22 hours a day over a two-month period. All meals were eaten inside his cell, which had an opaque window, thin mattress over a concrete bed and brick walls.
At some point, he was moved from one room to another. He then spent the next two months in a lesser form of isolation, able to eat outside his cell and attend church.
Juvenile Hall records show Banos was ordered into the Limited Program on May 13, 2013, on a misdemeanor count of escape. He didn’t have access to the large outdoor yard, but could exercise by himself in a small courtyard.
Banos said he was never allowed contact with other youth, only staff. He did have access to a full school schedule for an hour period and was allowed visits and phone calls.
In April 2014, just shy of a year after Banos’ escape and only months since his time in isolation, the Chief Probation Officers of California released a paper that said solitary confinement was not used in the state’s juvenile detention facilities.
“The practice evoked by the imagery above is not used in the 49 California counties in which probation departments operate Juvenile Detention and Commitment Facilities,” the paper reads, referring to a claim that solitary brings with it thoughts of dark, damp jail cells used for prisoners of war.
That’s in contradiction to Banos’ story, which San Francisco Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance couldn’t verify due to confidentiality rules. Nance wasn’t the department head when Banos was first incarcerated.
Nance, however, said it’s possible that in 2013 a youth could be locked into a cell for 22 hours a day over two months.
“It is not completely off base that a youth could be restricted to their room for an extended period of time and it could be for a variety of reasons that that might occur,” Nance said. “Under my leadership, I don’t want kids in their room for any more than four hours.”
While the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Program referred to the sort of incarceration Banos was subjected to as a Limited Program and the California probation heads call it separation, others like Sue Burrell of the Youth Law Center say it’s solitary confinement.
“There’s a misconception of if you don’t call it solitary confinement it isn’t,” Burrell said. “But that obviously isn’t the case.”
Nance echoed that sentiment. He said a child locked into a room like Banos is solitary confinement, regardless of whether it were a dungeon-like space or a newer one like the cells at Juvenile Hall.
Still, the term’s definition is contentious. A commonly accepted meaning from The American Academy of Pediatrics is “the placement of an incarcerated individual in a locked room or cell with minimal or no contact with people, other than staff of the correctional facility.”
Guidelines from the Annie E. Casey Foundation for juvenile justice, which are considered the leading set of national standards by the American Civil Liberties Union, limit isolation to four hours or less and never for the purposes of punishment.
Nance’s perspective on the matter is similar to that of the Casey foundation. This year, he’s contributing to a state Senate bill that would set limitations on solitary confinement for youths. His department is also working on policy that would do the same.
Until legislation passes, it’s not illegal under vague state standards for a child to be put in a situation like Banos experienced. There is case law, however, that demonstrates the illegality of long stretches of solitary confinement for youths, such as a May settlement in Contra Costa County where the juvenile probation department agreed to end the practice after locking up kids with disabilities for 23 hours a day.
Solitary confinement at length is proven to be mentally damaging. But since his time in isolation, Banos has turned his life away from crime. He had success when he was sent from Juvenile Hall to an out-of-state program. He found himself in a leadership role for other youth offenders.
Back in San Francisco, he’s now busy visiting his 3-year-old son when not at work on the Red and White Fleet along The Embarcadero, where he sells and scans tickets.CrimeJuvenile Halllockupminorssolitary confinement