In jails and schools across the United States, children suffer solitary confinement

The isolation cell in the juvenile pod at Onondaga County Justice Center

Across the United States, children in elementary schools are being placed in what are called seclusion rooms, a euphemism for solitary confinement. Across the United States, children in juvenile detention are also regularly placed in solitary confinement. Recently a parent in Phoenix, Arizona, expressed dismay at a “seclusion room” in her son’s elementary school. At the same time, in upstate New York, the Onondaga County Legislature voted unanimously to ban youth solitary confinement across the county criminal justice system. While the decision of the Onondaga County board is welcome news, it came as the result of years of organizing from civic and community organizations. Why are we so comfortable with dumping children into boxes, and who are we, who do we become, if we continue to let the practice continue and become every day more normal?

The Phoenix story is both straightforward and bent. Stephanie Vasquez picked a bilingual language immersion school with a good academic reputation for her son. One day, while taking her son to his classroom, she noticed a child, sitting in a windowless room, or closet, that was partially painted black, and had only a desk and chair. Stephanie Vasquez had worked for years as a middle school teacher and then worked as a volunteer teacher in a local women’s prison, and so she recognized the scene: “I was a little taken aback at first. Psychologically, I can only imagine what it does to a young child. It’s solitary confinement, just on a child level … The school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing to me. Having been a teacher for eight years, and then going to Perryville — the correlations between the two are eerie.”

Stephanie Vasquez asked the school about the space, and she was referred to their website, where she learned that those punished for “disruptive behavior” are sent to the room for a maximum of 15 minutes, to which Vasquez responds, “I don’t think it should happen at all … How long should they really even be in a confined black space? Probably never.”

It’s eerie … and altogether commonplace.

The Onondaga County Justice Center opened in 1995, and from its inception to today, the County has described the jail as a “state-of-the-art” facility. Community activists have differed with that description. They pointed to the agonizing death of Chuneice Patterson, in 2009.

Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York filed a suit against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office practice of placing 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement at the Justice Center.  They charged that between October 2015 and August 2016, the Onondaga County Justice Center dumped 80 teens, mostly youth of color, into solitary confinement. In January, the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice gave formal support to that lawsuit. In February 2017, a Federal judge ordered a halt to the practice. In June, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York arrived at a settlement with the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office, and in September, the Legislature voted unanimously to ban the practice.

Why does it take so much time and energy to stop torturing children? Stephanie Vasquez saw a child in a closet and knew it was solitary confinement. Others saw “the box” at Onondaga and knew it was a cage. Stephanie Vasquez knew children were being treated as prisoners; and others knew child prisoners were being treated as animals; and the sequence of alchemical transmutation continues straight to hell. In both Arizona and New York, the specific institutions claim to be state-of-the-art, and they are. They were designed by the best in the field. What does that say about our art? Where is the art in dumping children into closets, boxes, and cages? How long should a child be in a confined black space? Never.

Those in isolation are allowed one hour a day in this `recreation’ space.

 

(Photo Credits: Syracuse.com)

Children are disappearing into the night and fog of solitary confinement in jails and schools

A seclusion room in Horn Elementary School in Iowa City

Across the United States, we continue to torture children by throwing them into segregated, solitary confinement, and this happens as often in schools as it does in jails in prisons. Children are disappearing. That children are disappearing is not new. That we continue to disappear children is also not new, but it is shameful, and it’s a shame that reaches every day deeper and deeper into our collective spirit and individual souls.

Last week, the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice gave formal support to a lawsuit filed last year against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office for its ongoing and regular practice of placing 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement at the county jail. Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York charged that, between October 2015 and August 2016, the Onondaga County Justice Center dumped 80 teens, mostly youth of color, into solitary confinement. The Department of Justice endorsement of the case noted, “The Civil Rights Division has previously exercised the United States’ authority under CRIPA and Section 14141 to address issues related to the use of solitary confinement on juveniles in jails, including in the Jefferson County Jail in Alabama, the Hinds County Jail in Mississippi, the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island, and the Baltimore City Detention Center in Maryland. The Division also has addressed the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities, including in the Scioto and Marion Juvenile Correctional Facilities in Ohio and the Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi.”

According to Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director, “The Department of Justice’s involvement shows that what is happening to children at the Justice Center is not simply a tragedy for Syracuse, but it is a national disgrace. Children must be protected from the tortures of solitary confinement.”

The disgrace is not limited to prisons and jails. Last month, a complaint was filed against the Iowa City school district, charging that the district’s use of seclusion rooms violates Federal law, primarily because parents don’t know that the seclusions rooms exist and are being used and because the use of seclusion rooms is broader and more `ordinary’ than the law allows. During the 2013-14 school year, most of the students dumped into solitary confinement were students with diagnosed disabilities and individualized education plans. Half of the students with education plans who were sent to seclusion rooms were Black. Other than students with education plans, ALL of the students dumped into seclusion rooms in the 2013 – 2014 were Black. Black students comprise about 19% of the school population.

The good news, such as it is, is that these dismal mathematics are being challenged, and that occasionally something like decency wins. Torturing children is wrong. Children do matter. So do the adults who surround them. At the same time, consider how much energy, labor, work, investment is required to protect children, our children, your children, their children, from torture, every single day. Every single day, across the United States, children are disappearing, forgotten children who haunt the days and ways of our world.

 

(Photo Credit: The Gazette)

Prisoners die in agony, begging and screaming for care

Amy Lynn Cowling went for a drive on Christmas Eve, 2010. 33 years old, a grandmother of a one-day old child, bipolar, methadone dependent, and with only one kidney, Amy Lynn Cowling went for a drive in East Texas, where she was picked up for speeding, then arrested for some outstanding warrants on minor theft charges and traffic violations. Five days later, in the Gregg County Jail, after a day of wailing and seizures, of excruciating pain and suffering, of agony, Amy Lynn Cowling died. Amy Lynn Cowling died after five days of her family begging and pleading with the prison staff to make sure they gave her the life sustaining medicines she needed. The pills were just down the hall, in Amy Lynn Cowling’s purse, in the jail storage room. Nobody went, nobody came. Amy Lynn Cowling died.

Gregg County Jail is `troubled’. Since 2005, nine prisoners have died there, one of suicide, eight from `health conditions.’ Prisoners are dying, and prisoners are coming out hurt and injured. Across the country and across the world. Some suggest that Amy Lynn Cowling’s death `exposes health care problems in local jails.’ History suggests otherwise.

Ashley Ellis was twenty-one years old when she went for a drive one night, in 2007, in Rutland, Vermont. She hit a motorcycle and partially paralyzed its driver. Two years later, she was convicted of misdemeanor negligence. Ellis was sent to the Northwest State Correctional Facility in Swanton, Vermont.

In the two years between the accident and the sentencing, Ellis had gone from120 pounds to 86. She was depressed. She was under treatment for anorexia. This treatment required her to take regular potassium pills. She told the staff at the prison. Ellis’s doctor faxed the prison all the necessary information concerning her illness and treatment. At that time, the prison health services were outsourced to a private corporation, Prison Health Services, or PHS.

Ashley Ellis told the Prison Health Service staff that she needed the potassium pills, to live. They said they were out, they give her food, they did not provide the pills. After two days in prison, Ashley Ellis died. That was August 2009. In January 2010 Vermont suspended its contract with Prison Health Service, because the contract had `expired’. Prison Health Service advised its employees not to speak to anyone. The investigation went nowhere.

The medical examiner found that Ashley Ellis had died in part because of denial of access to medication. As we noted last year, a similar case occurred in New York, at about the same time. Chuneice Patterson, a prisoner in the Onondaga County Justice Center, in Syracuse, New York, screamed, writhed for nine hours in pain before dying of an ectopic pregnancy. She pressed the emergency button. Nobody came.

The New York State Commission of Correction concluded: “Chuneice Patterson was a twenty-one year old black woman who died on 11/12/09 at 8:30 a.m. from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy while in the custody of the Onondaga County Sherriff at the Onondaga County Justice Center….Had Ms. Patterson received adequate and competent medical care, her death would have been prevented.”

It’s too soon to say the exact cause of death for Amy Lynn Cowling. It’s too late to claim that another women dying in prison exposes anything. As attorney, prison expert and University of Texas faculty member Michele Deitch notes, “Until it affects a family like this, no one knows how bad things are.” As long as incarceration means isolation, as long as prison is a form of exile within the borders of one’s own state, as long as prisoners are invisible to `citizens’, they will continue to die in agony, begging and screaming for care.

 

(Photo Illustration: Todd Wiseman / Callie Richmond / The Texas Tribune)

 

In our community, prisoners die in agony begging for care

In the past five days, there have been two stories about young people in U.S. prisons who died “in agony”.

Adam Montoya was in the Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Illinois. Pekin is “a medium security facility housing male inmates.” In May 2009 Montoya pleaded guilty to passing counterfeit checks and cards. He had a history of methamphetamine abuse. He was ordered to stay clean while awaiting sentencing, which he did until mid-June, when he was diagnosed as HIV+. As his father Juan Montoya says, the news “hit him like a ton of bricks.”

Adam returned to methamphetamine, failed a urine test, admitted to using, and was locked up.

In mid-October, he was sentenced to a little over two years in Federal prison. His father thought it was a reasonable sentence, and, reasonably, started planning with his son for a life after prison. People living with HIV live long lives. Adam’s family was supportive. He had a job, a family, much to live for. His father noted that when Adam reached the prisoner transfer center, in Oklahoma, ARVs were waiting for him. He thought 27 months is not a death sentence. He was wrong.

Adam entered Pekin Correctional Institution on October 26. Eighteen days later he was dead: “For days before he died in a federal prison, Adam Montoya pleaded with guards to be taken to a doctor, pressing a panic button in his cell over and over to summon help that never came. An autopsy concluded that the 36-year-old inmate suffered from no fewer than three serious illnesses – cancer, hepatitis and HIV. The cancer ultimately killed him, causing his spleen to burst. Montoya bled to death internally. But the coroner and a pathologist were more stunned by another finding: The only medication in his system was a trace of over-the-counter pain reliever. That means Montoya…had been given nothing to ease the excruciating pain that no doubt wracked his body for days or weeks before death. `He shouldn’t have died in agony like that,” Coroner Dennis Conover said”

Before agony meant extreme bodily suffering, it meant mental struggle and anguish. Adam Montoya suffered extreme bodily suffering. Adam Montoya begged. Adam Montoya pressed the panic button over and over again. No one came. He was a prisoner. He had the right to press the panic button. He did not have the right or power to expect anyone to answer.

Chuneice Patterson was 21 years old when she found out she was two months pregnant. She was in the Onondaga County Justice Center, in Syracuse, New York: “The Onondaga County Justice Center, located in Syracuse, New York, is a “New Generation”, direct-supervision, maximum-security facility designed with state-of-the-art technology. The basic mission of this facility is to safely and securely house arrested, pre-trial, and Federal, State, and County inmates awaiting transfer to correctional facilities with an intention to positively impact those who are incarcerated and, consequently, our community.”

When Chuneice Patterson was processed, on November 10, she complained of stomach cramps. Her pregnancy was noted in her medical record at the jail. In the next day, nurses visited her three times. Although her pregnancy was on the record, no tests were requested: “Around 6 p.m. on November 11, inmates at the Onondaga County correctional facility told officers that Patterson had been vomiting in her cell. A nurse was called to check on her, no vital signs were taken. A few hours later, Patterson was lying on the floor in her underwear complaining she didn’t feel well and was hot. The same nurse was called again, and again she left without following proper protocol for examining a pregnant inmate. For the next nine hours, deputies saw Patterson rolling around on the floor of her cell, making noises and even splashing water from the toilet on her face before hitting the emergency button when she said she could not breathe.”

Here’s how the New York State Commission of Correction concludes the story: “Chuneice Patterson was a twenty-one year old black woman who died on 11/12/09 at 8:30 a.m. from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy while in the custody of the Onondaga County Sherriff at the Onondaga County Justice Center….Had Ms. Patterson received adequate and competent medical care, her death would have been prevented.”

A local news agency reported the same event: “Chuneice Patterson died from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and as the commission’s investigation shows she spent hours in agony begging for care.”

The same thing happened in 1996: “Patterson was the second inmate to die from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy in the past 14 years. In the previous case, the Commission of Correction found that three nurses and a doctor at the jail repeatedly failed to monitor inmate Lucinda Batts’ worsening condition before she collapsed and died from an ectopic pregnancy. Her death in March 1996 could have been prevented with proper medical care at the jail, the state found.”

The Justice Center is the state of the art of community. Chuneice Patterson had an emergency button, which she had the right to press. She did not have the right or power to expect a response.

Adam Montoya and Chuneice Patterson died in agony and left to their parents agony as their estate. These two stories together tell us that we, we who read the stories, we who comment on and discuss and share the stories, and we who choose to ignore the stories, we live in an Age of Agony. It is the state-of-the-art technology of our community. It is how we make prisoners die.

 

(Photo Credit: Syracuse.com)