Retiring Arizona Prison Watch...

This site was originally started in July 2009 as an independent endeavor to monitor conditions in Arizona's criminal justice system, as well as offer some critical analysis of the prison industrial complex from a prison abolitionist/anarchist's perspective. It was begun in the aftermath of the death of Marcia Powell, a 48 year old AZ state prisoner who was left in an outdoor cage in the desert sun for over four hours while on a 10-minute suicide watch. That was at ASPC-Perryville, in Goodyear, AZ, in May 2009.

Marcia, a seriously mentally ill woman with a meth habit sentenced to the minimum mandatory 27 months in prison for prostitution was already deemed by society as disposable. She was therefore easily ignored by numerous prison officers as she pleaded for water and relief from the sun for four hours. She was ultimately found collapsed in her own feces, with second degree burns on her body, her organs failing, and her body exceeding the 108 degrees the thermometer would record. 16 officers and staff were disciplined for her death, but no one was ever prosecuted for her homicide. Her story is here.

Marcia's death and this blog compelled me to work for the next 5 1/2 years to document and challenge the prison industrial complex in AZ, most specifically as manifested in the Arizona Department of Corrections. I corresponded with over 1,000 prisoners in that time, as well as many of their loved ones, offering all what resources I could find for fighting the AZ DOC themselves - most regarding their health or matters of personal safety.

I also began to work with the survivors of prison violence, as I often heard from the loved ones of the dead, and learned their stories. During that time I memorialized the Ghosts of Jan Brewer - state prisoners under her regime who were lost to neglect, suicide or violence - across the city's sidewalks in large chalk murals. Some of that art is here.

In November 2014 I left Phoenix abruptly to care for my family. By early 2015 I was no longer keeping up this blog site, save occasional posts about a young prisoner in solitary confinement in Arpaio's jail, Jessie B.

I'm deeply grateful to the prisoners who educated, confided in, and encouraged me throughout the years I did this work. My life has been made all the more rich and meaningful by their engagement.

I've linked to some posts about advocating for state prisoner health and safety to the right, as well as other resources for families and friends. If you are in need of additional assistance fighting the prison industrial complex in Arizona - or if you care to offer some aid to the cause - please contact the Phoenix Anarchist Black Cross at PO Box 7241 / Tempe, AZ 85281.

until all are free -

MARGARET J PLEWS (June 1, 2015)


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AZ Prison Watch BLOG POSTS:

Monday, May 19, 2014

Kids in The Box: Solitary confinement, torture, and our troubled youth.

ACTION: This week in Phoenix, at the State Capitol on Friday, MAY 23 at 5pm, Mothers Against Solitary Confinement will be rallying - please join them if you can. The action is also supported by Puente, Prisoners Are People, Arizona Prison Watch, and the American Friends Service Committee  (AFSC-Tucson).


As some folks are aware, the US Attorney General came out publicly last week condemning the abuse of solitary confinement to manage mentally ill juvenile prisoners in particular, and calling for an end to it. His remarks couldn't have been more timely, as I find myself increasingly involved with two mentally ill teens currently being charged as adults for serious crimes, being held in isolation/protective custody in the MCSO jails. Thus, my own focus on juvenile justice of late has been addressing the abuse of solitary confinement of youth in jails, prisons and detention centers. 

The following article is one of the more useful I've come across in terms of compiling the most current and relevant links to documents dealing with solitary and youth. Then there's the cool video at the end - check it out and share it, please.


 from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange:

Ryan Schill / JJIE

Juvenile Solitary Confinement: Modern-Day ‘Torture’ in the US

As a 17-year-old, Michael Kemp says, he felt like a caged animal.

For six months, his world was reduced to the size of a Washington, D.C., jail cell measuring maybe 8 feet by 10 feet.

During much of his time in solitary confinement, he spent 23 hours a day alone in the cell.

“You just like, ‘Man, I feel like an animal in here. I don’t even feel real … where I’m not even a human being,’" Kemp told JJIE. "You don’t feel like a human being."

Kemp, now 24, who was convicted of armed robbery and says he ended up in solitary because he was caught with a makeshift knife, slept on a mat atop a steel bed in the cinder block cell and had little contact with others except by yelling through a crisscross of bars to other inmates.


“In there by yourself, you can go stir crazy because you ain’t got that interaction,” Kemp said. “You supposed to be growing as an individual, but you ain’t growing. You have no human connection with nobody else. You just in a room by yourself.”

Even now, seven years after his stint in solitary as a juvenile, Kemp says psychic scars remain, and he still tends to isolate himself in his home.

“I might go in the bathroom or be sitting in the living room and I be in there for hours, man, just looking in the mirror or just in a room, just like I don’t know why I won’t be active. I just find myself always isolating myself for some reason, man,” said Kemp, a boyish-looking, slim young man who wears his hair in long braids.

“It’s like if you put a grasshopper in a cup and then you place a top on it and it keeps on jumping and it keeps on jumping and it keep on hitting the top, keep on hitting the top, so when you take the top off, the grasshopper not going to jump out the top of the cup because it’s going to be so used to hitting the top of the cup, and it’s like that’s how it is. Sometimes it feels like I’m in jail when I’m not in jail.”

When you think of solitary confinement, perhaps you think of North Vietnamese POW camps like the one where John McCain spent more than five years in captivity or Alcatraz, where the “Birdman” Robert Stroud made solitary famous, or today’s Supermax prisons that house hardened adult criminals.

But in fact, thousands of juveniles also endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.

  • In April 2012, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry issued a statement concluding that solitary confinement of juveniles could lead to depression, anxiety and even psychosis and called for an end to the practice. “Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions,” the AACAP statement said. “Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”
  • Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has found that solitary confinement can amount to torture and has urged a ban on solitary confinement of children and people with mental disabilities.
  • The National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, commissioned by U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., concluded in its final report in December 2012, “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The task force recommended the practice be forbidden. (The task force was co-chaired by Robert L. Listenbee Jr., who is now the administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Listenbee did not respond to requests for comment.)
  • In his role as OJJDP administrator, Listenbee stated in a July 5, 2013, letter to an American Civil Liberties Union official that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” which is banned under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • Experts say adolescents are particularly vulnerable to psychological harm caused by solitary – sometimes known as room restriction, restricted engagement, segregation, isolation, lockdown or seclusion – because their brains are still developing.

Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. prisons policy and program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which represents 320 religious organizations, said the campaign opposes solitary confinement of juveniles and views it as a form of torture.

“It’s really a moral question first and foremost,” Downton told JJIE. “When you think about if a parent were to lock a child in a closet, let’s say, for an extended amount of time, we would call that child abuse. And yet that’s essentially what we’re doing within our justice system.

“What we know is that isolation does not lead to rehabilitation. It leads to destruction and annihilation, and we believe very firmly as people of faith that this is immoral and that it’s wrong.”

Critics note that solitary – which youths have been subjected to in U.S. juvenile facilities for more than a century – often denies children access to education, mental health treatment, physical activity, and reading and writing material.

Despite widespread concerns about juvenile isolation, however, some correctional officers’ unions and corrections administrators call the practice a necessary option to maintain discipline and ensure the safety and security of facilities.

A November ACLU report calling for a ban on solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities cited four reasons generally given to justify it: to punish children when they break facility rules; to protect a child from other children; to deal with children deemed too disruptive or out of control; and to isolate a child for medical reasons, including having a contagious disease or having expressed a desire to commit suicide.

Speaking of solitary confinement, Craig Brown, chief lobbyist for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents correctional officers in the state system, said: “Our feeling was, why ever deprive yourself of a tool? … Corrections is about tradeoffs, and one of the tradeoffs is if you don’t use a tool like this, you disrupt the program for everybody else.”

If the system did not rely on solitary, Brown said: “If you have somebody who is messing things up so other wards who are trying to participate and deal with their issues can’t do it, then what you’ve done is you’ve said, ‘Well, we’re not going to isolate this ward. In exchange we’re going to let him mess up the program for 10 or 15 other guys.’”

Referring to solitary, Brown said, “It’s necessary for programming, it’s necessary for staff safety, it’s for the safety of the other wards – at times.”

California state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, a child psychologist, expresses a decidedly different view.

Yee has proposed a bill that would sharply restrict solitary confinement of youths in state and county juvenile correctional facilities.

Yee, who has treated youngsters in prisons, jails and health systems, told JJIE solitary makes youths more dangerous, more antisocial, more likely to reoffend, more likely to commit suicide and more likely to suffer a lifetime mental illness.

In solitary, Yee said: “Kids become depressed, they become disassociated, they begin to sometimes decompose psychologically. So there’s nothing good that comes out of solitary confinement for the youngster. It’s all bad, and it seems to me that if the [state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] would just simply pick up a book on psychology and read it, they would understand that this is not a good thing for youngsters and not good for our society in general…. Torture doesn’t help anybody at all.”

Under Yee’s bill, solitary confinement could be used only when a juvenile posed an “immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or to the security of the facility, and all other less-restrictive options have been exhausted.” The bill also specifies that a juvenile be held in solitary only for the minimum time necessary to reduce the risk.

Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, which oversees the Division of Juvenile Justice, said state law allows youths to be held up to 23 hours a day in a room in a “behavior treatment unit.” But Sessa said youths have been allowed to leave the rooms an average of six hours a day most of the past year and that youths held in the rooms receive education and counseling.

Of Yee’s measure, Sessa said, “This bill is a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Yee said the department opposed a bill that failed last year that would have restricted solitary confinement of youths in juvenile facilities.

“If [corrections officials] had their way, they’d probably still have torture chambers in the state of California,” Yee said.

New Jersey also has become a focal point in the debate over solitary confinement of juveniles.

The New Jersey ACLU and other organizations petitioned the state Juvenile Justice Commission, in July to ban punitive solitary confinement of youths in juvenile facilities.

In a letter to Kevin Brown, the executive director of the JJC, the petitioners stated, “Solitary confinement is an extreme and inhumane form of punishment that is not evidenced-based, wastes taxpayer money, and jeopardizes public safety; this is especially so when the people being subjected to the punishment are children.”

The JJC, the state agency that oversees juvenile justice in New Jersey, rejected the petition to ban punitive solitary confinement of youths in mid-February.

Sharon Lauchaire, the public information officer for the commission, part of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, said the JJC would continue discussions with the ACLU about what is known in the state as “room restriction.”

“We have reviewed our use of room restriction in the past and will continue to do so,” Lauchaire told JJIE. “We will be soliciting feedback from the ACLU and other parties on room restriction.”

The denial of the petition came after a $400,000 settlement in a lawsuit over two boys who had been held in solitary in New Jersey for extended periods – one of them, for about six months.

Policies on solitary confinement of juveniles vary widely across the country.

Even critics of juvenile solitary acknowledge youths who are out of control or a threat to themselves or others may need some time alone but say this should be for minutes or hours, not days – and with close adult supervision.

Some states – including Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Oklahoma and West Virginia – have banned or restricted punitive solitary confinement of juveniles. And New York State just banned solitary confinement of juveniles held in state adult facilities.

It’s impossible to say how often U.S. juvenile detention facilities use solitary confinement, as neither states nor the federal government publishes such data and almost no detention facilities make the data available to the public.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, estimated that about 70,000 young people are being held at any given time in juvenile facilities nationwide and that in many facilities solitary confinement is “routine.”

In an October letter, the ACLU and numerous other organizations urged Attorney General Holder and OJJDP’s Listenbee to prohibit solitary confinement of youths in federal custody. In addition, more than 40,000 people have signed a petition calling on Holder to ban solitary confinement of juveniles in federal custody.

And on Feb. 28, U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-California, proposed a measure that would ban solitary confinement of youth in federal juvenile facilities.

“Solitary confinement is something that is purely punitive, and it has nothing to do with rehabilitation,” Cárdenas told JJIE.

But despite concerns about the dangers of juvenile solitary expressed by the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence and by Listenbee, the U.S. government still has not banned the practice in federal detention facilities.

“There’s no prohibition,” Fettig told JJIE. “It’s sort of like, ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chaired a Feb. 25 Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement, called on all state and federal facilities to end solitary confinement of juveniles, pregnant women and people with “serious and persistent” mental illness “except under the rarest circumstances.”  (Durbin’s office did not respond to requests to clarify what would constitute those “rarest circumstances.”)

“When it comes to solitary confinement, we know children are particularly vulnerable,” Durbin said. “The mental health effects of even short periods of isolation, including depression and risk of suicide, are heightened among youths.”

Supporters of a ban on solitary in juvenile facilities point out that many youths enter the facilities with mental illness and that solitary aggravates it.

“When you subject [juveniles] to extreme isolation and then you expect their behavior to change, well, that’s living in a fantasy world because you’re actually exacerbating whatever pre-existing problem that kid had,” Fettig said. “Subjecting them to solitary confinement isn’t going to turn them into well-socialized adults. It’s going to inflict more harm on them. So it’s actually completely counterproductive to what the system should be doing, and child abuse should not be mandated by the state.

“You literally are locking a child down with nothing to do, with no interaction, for 23, 22, 24 hours a day. In some ways, it’s common sense to look at the denial of education, the denial of drug treatment, the denial of adequate mental health care that exists in solitary confinement, and think to yourself, ‘Well, what’s going be the result for that kid? How could anything positive ever come from such treatment?’ And the answer is, it doesn’t.”

Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, said solitary flies in the face of the rehabilitative goal of the juvenile justice system.

“All the evidence about the effects of isolation are that it is counterproductive to the goals of rehabilitation,” Lubow said, “so I don’t know how you can be doing rehabilitation based on that kind of extreme punishment.”

Fettig points out that the U.S. Supreme Court has cited research on adolescent brain development in ruling against extreme punishment for juveniles, including the death penalty and mandatory sentences of life without parole. The high court has based these rulings in part on research showing  that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed, and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.

The Supreme Court should also ban solitary confinement of juveniles as “extreme punishment,” Fettig suggested.

“That mission in juvenile justice, which is rehabilitation, becomes even more critical in light of the science as well as in light of the top law, the Supreme Court jurisprudence in this country, that has looked at the science and looked at the law and our Constitution,” she said.

“We believe that those theories, that same science and judicial ruling can easily be applied to the most extreme forms of punishment that we see in the juvenile justice system … and that is the use of solitary confinement.”

A ban on solitary is long overdue, in the view of Tanisha Denard.

As a 17-year-old, she spent 2 ½ weeks in solitary at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall outside Los Angeles.
Denard, now 19, told JJIE she ended up at Los Padrinos for a month because she failed to appear for court dates for truancy tickets she received for being late for school and was put in solitary after refusing to socialize or eat. (She graduated from high school in 2011 and now works as a youth organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition, which fights race, gender and class inequality in Los Angeles County’s and California’s juvenile justice systems.)

While in solitary, Denard came out of her cell only to use the bathroom and to shower and had little contact with others and no reading or writing materials.

If she weren’t in solitary, Denard said, she could have been doing homework or something productive that would have helped rehabilitate her instead of languishing in her cell.

Of solitary, Denard said: “It was dehumanizing. It felt like I wasn’t even a person in society. Nobody could see me. I couldn’t see nobody. So it feels like you not even there.”

Thus, like thousands of other children in the United States each year, Tanisha Denard became all but invisible – in the largely hidden world of juvenile solitary confinement.