The Sad Story Of A Teen In Solitary Confinement
Jermaine Gotham was sixteen the first time he was locked in “the box.” He was then an inmate at the Cayuga County Jail, in Auburn, in central New York State, following his arrest on charges of robbery, burglary, and kidnapping. One afternoon in March of last year, after he was written up for entering another inmate’s cell without permission, he was sentenced to sixty days of solitary confinement. A group of corrections officers—Gotham says it was about ten—came to the block where he was being held with other juveniles and transferred him to a solitary cell in the adults’ restrictive-housing unit. The slam of the thick metal door, he remembered, made him feel as if he were in a tomb. He peered through a sliver of light in the door and, for hours, begged the officers to open it. At some point that evening, all the lights went out.
“That’s when you truly know what darkness is, in the box,” Gotham, who recently turned eighteen, said.
The block was silent, save for the drip, drip, drip of condensation falling from vents in neighboring cells, and Gotham found the quiet unnerving. Then he started to hear voices.
“I banged on the door and told the C.O.s they needed to let me out, because I was hearing things,” he said. “They told me it was the old heads”—the older inmates—“but I was like, ‘Nah, it’s midnight! Everyone else is asleep!’ ”
The frigid cell contained a metal bed, a toilet, and a sink. On the first night, Gotham didn’t sleep; his mind raced and he did pushups to distract himself. Over the next two months, Gotham said, he was kept in his cell for twenty to twenty-three hours a day. He often wasn’t allowed to go to his G.E.D. classes, to call his family, or to shower.
Eventually, the voices of the adults in the adjoining cells became a comfort, as the older men shouted words of encouragement. One sent him a book via a benevolent C.O.—“Block Party,” about a formerly incarcerated man trying to regain his status on the streets. Not long after he was released, on May 6th, Gotham was placed in solitary confinement again, this time for thirty days, for throwing things at another inmate and ignoring requests to return to his cell. Gotham says he and the other teen were playing catch with a rolled-up sock ball, because they were bored. That thirty-day sentence turned into fifty days, when Gotham got another ticket, on May 7th, for throwing spit wads. He received several additional thirty-day sentences for throwing his dinner tray out of his cell and for swearing at and challenging C.O.s.
In June, he got another two hundred days, for using paper to block the cell’s locking mechanism. Gotham, who has learning disabilities and an I.Q. of seventy, unsuccessfully appealed each of these sentences, writing simple notes in the large, uneven handwriting of a small child.
In September, 2016, Gotham pleaded guilty to six felonies. A psychiatrist who treated Gotham before he was incarcerated wrote a letter indicating that his mental disorders made him impulsive, and asked the judge for leniency. In November, Gotham was sentenced to eight years in prison. He is currently in Coxsackie Correctional Facility, half an hour south of Albany, where he has continued to rack up tickets for misconduct. In total, Gotham, who is now in “keep lock,” a type of restrictive housing, has spent more than three hundred days in some form of solitary confinement.
“I’m kind of used to it now,” Gotham told me on a recent fall day in the visiting room at Coxsackie. (He was made to sit closest to the C.O.s in the visiting room, “due to his bad behavior,” a C.O. said.) Gotham had just gotten his six-inch Afro braided, and occasionally patted the side of his head as he spoke. “But I’m not gonna lie, it never becomes easier. It messes with my mind. You become depressed, angry, aggressive. You think of killing yourself, though I would never tell anyone here that.”
There’s been a recent movement to end solitary confinement for juveniles in correctional facilities. In January, 2016, President Barack Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, and several states, including California and Massachusetts, have either ended solitary for minors or set limits on the amount of time and the reasons they can be isolated.
In October, 2014, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York reached a settlement with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) in Cookehorne v. Fischer, which stipulated that minors in restricted confinement should be allowed out of their cells for six hours a day on weekdays—two for recreation time, and four for educational programming—and for two hours a day on weekends. Two class-action lawsuits have been filed against county jails in upstate New York: one in Onondaga County, which was settled in June and led to an end of solitary confinement for inmates under eighteen; and a second in Broome County, which was filed in July. In October, New York State’s Commission on Correction issued new standards for solitary confinement, which would mandate that local jails provide at least four hours of out-of-cell time for all inmates in isolation, including adults, and that jail officials notify the state when placing someone under the age of eighteen in solitary. Those rules, if approved, would not go into effect until January. So, for now, most county jails continue to determine their own rules for juvenile solitary confinement.
Josh Cotter is the staff attorney with Legal Services of Central New York who filed both the Onondaga and Broome County lawsuits. He said that while minors are technically supposed to be out of sight and earshot of adults in county jails, they are often sent to the same special housing units (SHU) where adults are held, and often locked in for twenty to twenty-three hours a day. Even the few hours out are not necessarily a respite. “When they go out for recreation, in Syracuse, it was just in this small cage by themselves,” Cotter said. “In Broome County, it was in a yard, but there was nothing in the yard—it’s just this cement yard with cement walls on all four sides.”
Cotter filed a lawsuit against the Cayuga County Jail that resulted in Gotham being released from solitary in July, 2016, and transferred to the Monroe County Jail. Cayuga County Sheriff David Gould said that he could not comment on Gotham’s case. A county legislative official wrote to me, “The Cayuga County Jail did not hold juvenile
s, defined as those between the ages of 16-17, in solitary confinement.”
Like Gotham, about two-thirds of incarcerated juveniles have at least one mental illness, and many of them end up in solitary confinement. “It’s a very stressful experience for anyone to be kept in solitary confinement, and people that have preëxisting mental illnesses simply don’t have the same kind of resilience to deal with those stresses,” Andrew Clark, the director of Forensic Mental Health and Community Psychiatry at the Boston Medical Center, said. “For juveniles, there’s significant and potentially really quite long-term or permanent emotional and psychiatric damage.” Mental illness can be exacerbated by isolation, which leads to behavioral issues and subsequent punishment for disciplinary infractions, which in turn leads to more time in solitary confinement, with the cycle perpetuating itself. Gotham says that isolation in a cell brings back traumatic memories of being wrestled to the ground and placed alone in a padded room in one of the many upstate residential treatment facilities where he spent much of his childhood.
“He was fine through birth till, I want to say, three,” Gotham’s mother, Angelena Morris, said. “Three is when I started seeing a lot of signs that something was wrong.” Morris, a stay-at-home mother, said her son became aggressive and hyperactive. He would suck on his shirt until it was drenched; in one early incident, he turned on the stove, lit a toilet plunger on fire, and threw it onto a kitchen cabinet.
Jermaine was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. The psychiatrist at the Onondaga County Department of Mental Health prescribed Ritalin, which Morris said made him even more hyperactive. Then, when Jermaine was six years old, Morris discovered that a relative had been molesting him.
“Some things, he’s stuck at a six-year-old, because of the trauma,” Morris said. “He really went downhill after the sexual abuse had happened. So, on top of his issues that he was already having, it just really set it off. He would sit there, just break his pencils. He was yelling in school, so, there’s been a couple times where he was suspended. He was getting in fights, saying ‘No’ fifty to sixty times a day, and one medicine wasn’t helping.”
At six, Jermaine was also running away from home and spending time on the streets with older children. He said he did it because his father, Dewitt, was not around and he felt that his mother, who was pregnant at the time, was more focussed on his older sister, La Tesha. Jermaine was also earning money on the streets of Auburn, where the family settled after moving from Syracuse: the older children would pit him against other small children and place bets on them as they fought. He often won, and would spend his money on candy, Slim Jims, and sodas.
“I had to call the police because he wasn’t home—like, eleven, twelve at night, I’m chasing after him, pregnant, because he wouldn’t come home,” Morris said. “Jermaine got to the point where he had no fear.”
Morris filed a voluntary petition for a person in need of supervision (PINS) with the Cayuga County family court. She thought that a PINS would mean Jermaine could be treated for his mental illnesses, and that she would then be allowed to bring him home. She later realized that filing the PINS was essentially a temporary custody exchange with the county, and she had no say on when he would be released. She did not have an attorney at the time.
He kicked and screamed the day he was taken from his mother in family court and placed in Hillside, a residential treatment facility in Auburn. Gotham says now that he was angry at everyone, and that he still carries the remnants of that rage. While he returned home for occasional visits, he remained in facilities until he was around fourteen. His mother said that in that time, he was placed on at least twelve different medications, including Thorazine, which she worried was too strong a medication for a child, and Risperdal, which made him gain weight and grow breasts. He came home for a year, but was arrested after a physical altercation with La Tesha, and was placed back in Hillside. After his release, he was home for less than a year before he was arrested again, after breaking into several homes in and around Auburn with friend, Maurice James, who was twenty-five. In one home, James beat a seventy-three-year-old woman while Gotham searched her home for valuables; they then forced her into the back seat of her car, which James totalled while attempting to drive to an A.T.M. It was this crime that led to Gotham, then sixteen, being charged and sentenced as an adult.
In the year that Gotham has been in prison, first at Hudson Correctional Facility, which was recently converted to a juvenile facility, and then at Coxsackie, a maximum-security adult prison with a juvenile unit, he has spent about sixty-five per cent of his time either in the juvenile separation unit or in “keep lock.” Both are forms of restrictive confinement. “Keep lock is where you’re locked in your own cell with all your possessions. SHU, you’re removed from the cell you were in, you’re put in a different cell on a different block that typically has a solid steel door with a tiny little Plexiglas window,” Karen Murtagh, the executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, whose firm is also working on Gotham’s case, said. The Cookhorne settlement, she explained, “lays out this new thing called the juvenile separation unit. It’s the same as solitary. What’s different about the juvenile separation unit is the time spent in the cell.”
Gotham typically has six hours out of his cell. His recreation time is generally in a small cage—he estimates that it’s about ten-by-ten feet, just enough room to walk in circles—and he says he is shackled when he goes to G.E.D. classes.
Michael Mazzella, the Mid-Hudson Region vice-president for the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, says that solitary confinement is necessary to protect C.O.s as well as other inmates. “While the advocates for the end of the policy find it easy to say that human beings shouldn’t be segregated, they have never walked a mile in our shoes. They have never been violently assaulted, had urine and feces thrown on them, nor have been spit on by inmates,” Mazzella wrote in an e-mail. “I’ve seen ‘juvenile’ inmates that are o
ver six feet tall and weigh 240 pounds or more who have assaulted our officers. Whether the inmate who behaves in such a manner is 16 or 62, there needs to be a way to control that inmate and segregation is the only way that I know of to accomplish that task.”
In August, Gotham’s lawyer wrote to DOCCS to request his immediate release from restrictive housing and the reinstatement of his privileges, including phone calls. Gotham said he had not been allowed to call his family and rarely saw them, because the prison is a three-hour drive from home. A DOCCS spokesperson said that Gotham had not been allowed to make calls for twenty days, as punishment for “creating a disturbance.” Citing Gotham’s many mental illnesses, the lawyer wrote, “Jermaine is especially vulnerable to the negative consequences and effects of confinement, including the potential for self-harm and suicide. We are deeply concerned that he has already been harmed by this isolation, and fear for his safety and well-being.” Gotham said he is currently only being given Clonidine, for his A.D.H.D., but no treatment for his bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses.
A DOCCS spokesperson said that the Office of Mental Health does a comprehensive assessment of incarcerated teens, and that someone from O.M.H. makes regular rounds to check on them. The prison determines their individual needs, and focusses “on assisting individuals in their development of pro-social skills, substance-abuse prevention skills, and meaningful transition plans consistent with the philosophy and practices of youth programming.”
If Gotham serves all the time in restricted confinement he has racked up so far, he won’t be returned to the general population until March. He recently turned eighteen, which means he will likely serve his remaining months of solitary confinement in an adult unit—twenty-three hours a day in a barren cell.
He said it’s overwhelming to think about it too much. During the months-long stretches in solitary in the county jail, he felt so isolated and disoriented that he considered suicide, though he said he lacked the ability to go through with it. There are lots of mental hurdles, he said. You have to think about how and where you can hang a sheet, and then you wonder whether it will hurt, and with all that thinking, it’s easy to lose your nerve.
“At first, you’re thinking, I got to get out of here, then you think, I can’t take it anymore. Then you start thinking, How can I end this?”
Date Posted: Tuesday, December 5th, 2017 , Total Page Views: 824