Imagine you are alone. You have only seen a handful of other humans in months, and they mainly ignore you. You spend 23 hours of every day in a small, perpetually lit concrete room with a window you aren't allowed to look through and nothing to occupy your time. Your daily hour of “exercise” is just another room with no one there. You don't know exactly why this is all happening, or when it will stop.
You are 13 years old.
This scenario is not from the mind of Franz Kafka or the records of a Soviet gulag. It is happening right now to thousands of teens throughout California, especially in the Bay Area, as kids in juvenile detention are punished with solitary confinement for what may have been nothing worse than a wisecrack. The misuse of solitary confinement is causing untold damage to our most vulnerable youths, and it must end. The California Legislature has the power to do just that by passing Senate Bill 61 this session.
DeAngelo Cortijo was born into poverty in San Francisco and assigned to foster care at age 2 after his mother attempted suicide. He was in and out of more than 20 homes before he entered the juvenile justice system at 12, initially for vandalism. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to experiences no child should endure, but starker traumas awaited him in juvenile detention.
Rather than treat his psychological disorder, the guards made it worse. Taunting him until he lashed out, they would push him down and choke him, sometimes leaving him hog-tied on the floor alone for lengthy periods. The real damage wasn't done by physical violence, however, but by solitary confinement, which could last for months. Devoid of human contact, not allowed books or visitors, his confusion and hopelessness grew. “I died there every day,” he said.
Cortijo's experiences are heart-rending, but far from unique. California's juvenile solitary confinement practices have been roundly condemned, including by the state itself, yet reforms have been sluggish while the damage continues to mount. Teens given solitary are prone to suffer from clinical depression, social problems and worse. More than half of juvenile detainees who commit suicide do so in solitary confinement. Teens with pre-existing psychological issues, already likelier to be detained, are also likelier to have their problems exacerbated by solitary confinement. One plaintiff in a current lawsuit against Contra Costa County was diagnosed with severe psychiatric disorders and ordered to receive specialized care while in custody. Instead he was put into solitary until he suffered “a complete psychotic break” and had to be hospitalized.
In other incidents across the state, teens held in isolation have been deprived of meals, pepper-sprayed regularly, denied education and more, forming an unmistakable pattern: Kids who should be getting help are instead abused through the unchecked application of solitary confinement.
Cortijo, now 20, was able to turn his life around with a lot of hard work and the help of volunteers from outside the justice system — but, he says, not from within it. “The system raised me,” he said. “I changed myself.” He earned his GED and currently studies at City College of San Francisco, while also working with organizations advocating for at-risk youths. However, the harm he suffered in solitary is still with him, and it may always be. “Even now it's hard,” he said. “It completely detached me from my emotions, my life. I don't know my family anymore. There's a void.”
Cortijo's advocacy includes supporting SB 61, a bill introduced by state Sen Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, that would finally curtail abuses of solitary confinement and make sure vulnerable youths are being treated, not mistreated, by the system. However, it is advancing slowly. Each day that passes without SB 61's reforms is another day thousands of California kids wait as their lives slip away, one lonely hour at a time.
Evan Brown is the acting director of Unite for Students, a group advocating for reforms in the education and juvenile justice systems.