For Their Own Good

Harris County juveniles certified as adults are jailed in isolation 23 hours a day — without being convicted of a crime.

Beginning about four years ago, Harris County decided not only to keep all 14-to 16-year-old inmates in the same unit, apart from the adults, but also to segregate them from each other, to keep them from fighting by placing each one in his own cell 23 hours a day. They're allowed out for schooling, recreation, to see visitors and to go to court.

Marrus says many of the reasons why certified juveniles are held in the adult jail have to do with convenience. It makes it easier on the jail staff to take them to court hearings, and when the teen turns 17, he is moved into a unit with older inmates, "so it's easier for them to just keep the child there for the whole time," she says.

Susan Card, spokeswoman for the Harris County Sheriff's Office, which runs the jail, says simply that when a juvenile is certified, that legally makes him an adult, and therefore he is placed in the county jail.

It might make sense, then, that there would be laws or regulations protecting the kids. Not so, says Brandon Wood of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. The agency's only recommendation is that jails with the ability to should separate the children from the adults.

Human Rights Watch has said that prolonged solitary confinement should be banned across the globe, calling it a "cruel and inhuman treatment."

Among psychologists, there are currently two basic schools of thought on the subject. The first, championed by Dr. Craig Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz, is essentially that no one should ever be forced to suffer long-term isolation. Dr. Joel Dvoskin of the University of Arizona, who ran the forensic and correctional mental health system for the state of New York for ten years, advocates a more tempered notion. He believes that isolation doesn't necessarily cause mental illness, but it can. And in children, the effects are amplified.

"I'm kind of a hard-ass and believe that there are some people who deserve prison," he says, "but I think even the most even-handed people have said ... [isolation] is not socially normal in any sense of the word. We know that the prevalence of mental illness or emotional problems among juvenile offenders is very high, and it's certainly true that [isolation] can either cause or exacerbate mental illness in some people, so when you consider the risk factors, it's fair to say that it's at least as high and probably higher in minors."

Certain considerations affect an inmate's ability to handle isolation, says Dvoskin, including whether the offender thinks he is being unfairly punished and whether he has any control over when he is released.

"If you are put in [isolation] simply because you are a minor," he says, "it's going to seem less fair and you're going to feel like you have no control because the only way to no longer be a minor is to kill yourself. You're stuck, and there's nothing you can do about it but wait for time to slowly creep by."

Sitting in the visitation area behind a thick pane of glass and wearing his county-issued orange shirt, pants and socks, George keeps his head down; he speaks softly and in short sentences.

"Doing the time is hard," says the scrawny teen, who could easily pass for 12. "I'm so scared and lonely. When I let myself think about it, I start to cry."

Police arrested George when he was 14. He turned 15 in jail.

When asked about his typical day, George says he tries not to think about suicide. Instead he spends hours watching the gnats buzz around his cell. He has a radio and a few books, but mostly George says he just sits on his bunk. Sometimes he'll move over to the metal chair — tucked underneath a metal desk, which is next to his toilet and sink — to write a letter to his mother. When she visits him, the glass partition prevents them from hugging or touching. For exercise, he paces or does sit-ups and push-ups. That tires him out and relaxes his muscles, allowing him to fall asleep. Some days, he says, it feels like the only reason to get up is to figure out a way to get back to sleep again.

Through a small window on his cell door, George can only see a wall. Below the window is a slot through which guards slide his meal tray three times a day. But George refuses to eat the "nastiness," choosing instead to live on a less than nutritious diet of prepackaged chips, candy and soda that he buys from the commissary using the money his mother deposits in his jail account.

When the food slot is open, George can hear the other kids in the unit, who like him have been certified as adults and are kept in segregation. He hears them scream and act out, beating on their doors, only to have the noise silenced when the guards reclaim the uneaten food and slam the slot shut.

George is allowed out of his cell once a day for an hour. He says he uses the time to shower, call home or socialize with fellow inmates in a common room. As required by law, he gets an education. George says he goes to class twice a week for an hour each time, though jail officials say kids his age go for five hours every Tuesday and Thursday. George says he does his homework in his cell, though he doesn't have much this week because he says all he did in class was watch the movie The Outsiders, starring Patrick Swayze and Rob Lowe. He longingly remembers the time he spent in the juvenile detention center before being transferred, where he went to school all day and was allowed out of his cell far more often.

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