Why can't Philly stop holding kids in solitary confinement?

The situation with her son is pushing Cassandra Barnett to despair. Last week, she quit her job; she was no longer able to make it through the workday without breaking down.  

The reason: She'd been told her son was in segregation at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC) -- the adult jail that contains a separate cell block for teens charged as adults and awaiting trial. The 17-year-old had already attempted suicide twice in jail, she said. Given that 62 percent of suicides in juvenile facilities are by teens who've been held in confinement, she worries he may try again. Indeed, his most recent court docket entry includes an order for suicide watch.

“Confinement is always the solution for everything over there,” said Barnett, 38, of Southwest Philadelphia. She spoke on the condition that her son's name not be used. “Some of these kids, they have made bad choices and bad decisions. But at the same time, how do you fix that without damaging the child more?”

In 2015, juveniles at PICC were placed in punitive segregation 41 times, for an average of 32 days apiece. In August 2016, PICC deputy warden Claudette Martin told the Inquirer "changes are currently in the making," with the aim of creating alternatives to segregation within three months. But in the nine months since, advocates say, the practice has continued.

At a City Council budget hearing Tuesday, Philadelphia Department of Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney said segregation remains necessary at times, such as when a fight occurs. But alternatives are under consideration.

Those include increasing time out of cell, creating an incentive program for good behavior -- and purchasing "safety chairs," which have loose restraints.

"When you talk about security chairs or tables, those folks who have committed an infraction can still be brought out in a group setting and strategically placed so they don't interact in a negative way, but we can still do the therapeutic timeout process," Carney said. 

Critics say that, given the ongoing use of solitary for kids in adult jails, maybe it’s time to reconsider housing them there altogether.

"Housing young people who are facing adult charges in juvenile facilities would be a really significant step to addressing solitary confinement," said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center. 

All six district attorney candidates present at a forum organized by Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney on Tuesday evening said they were committed to keeping youths out of the city's adult jails pretrial.

Meanwhile, State Rep. Joanna McClinton, whose district includes Philadelphia and Delaware Counties, said 14 cosponsors have signed on to a forthcoming bill to require almost all kids under 18 to be housed in juvenile facilities pretrial.

Under her legislation, juveniles charged with murder would still be housed in adult jails. That reflects a political reality, she said.

“Nationally, there's a discussion about Kalief Browder, but in Harrisburg, people aren't talking about it.”

Browder was 16 when he was accused of stealing a backpack; he spent three years at Rikers Island -- two of them in solitary -- before his case was dismissed. A year later, he took his own life. His death fueled an advocacy campaign to shutter Rikers, and, in March, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to close the jail

Browder was at Rikers because, in New York, anyone 16 or older was considered an adult. (Just last week, the state raised the age to 18.) 

Here in Pennsylvania, the age of adulthood is already 18. But a 1996 law allows teens 15 to 17 accused of serious crimes like aggravated assault or robbery with a deadly weapon to face charges "direct-filed" to the adult system. (Murder charges are always filed in adult criminal court.)

At first, Philadelphia held those direct-file juveniles -- about 30 to 50 boys at any given time, and often just one or two girls -- in its juvenile facility. Then, in 2001, it created the dedicated juvenile block at PICC.

Benjamin Lerner, the city's deputy managing director for criminal justice, said he had looked into the pretrial housing of direct-file juveniles when he was the judge presiding over those cases.

His conclusion: Legally, they must stay in adult jail.

"Unless you had completely separate facilities at the Juvenile Justice Center, you could not mingle juveniles charged as adults with other juveniles," he said.  

But Lauren Fine, codirector of the nonprofit Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, pointed to a 2010 state law that says that, if a judge and prosecutor agree, direct-file youths who are seeking transfer to juvenile court may be held in juvenile facilities. 

Fine said juvenile-justice facilities have more training and resources to deal with the needs and challenges of young people -- and they are subject to regulations limiting confinement. 

"Our understanding is at the [city's juvenile detention center], solitary is not being used on children," Fine said. "It is being used frequently on children in the adult jail, where they are being held pretrial -- and prior to a determination of whether they even belong in the adult system." 

Michelle Mason, director of the juvenile special-defense division at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said that at the adult jails, juveniles may be segregated for a range of reasons. 

She mentioned Barnett’s son, who was charged with aggravated assault and attempted murder in November, and is being held on $500,000 bail.

Recently, he got into an altercation and was disciplined with 48 hours' segregation, she said. But before that, he spent time in a different kind of isolation: on the mental-health services unit, alone in a cell with no clothing except a “suicide smock” -- a thick blanket worn as a sheath with no undergarments.

“He was there for a couple days," she said. "Then, in February, he tried to hang himself in his cell, and he was sent over to the health-services wing for a couple more days.”

Beverly Beaver, another public defender, said one of her clients has spent more than five months collectively in punitive segregation -- and that he's currently in segregation for 45 days. She said that means he's in his cell at least 23 hours a day, with no phone calls or visits, except for his lawyer.

“On the weekend, he doesn't get to come out at all,” she said. She recently went on a weekend and stayed for hours, knowing it would be his only time out of his cell. 

Then there's the women's jail, Riverside Correctional Facility, where girls charged as adults are held in the secure unit. When there's only one juvenile there, isolation can be unavoidable. 

One of Beaver's clients, then 17, spent about two months alone in a cell at Riverside last year. Normally the school day would provide a reprieve -- but she already had her diploma.

"So, she was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day,” said Beaver, who visited as often as she could. "Being a teenage girl and being alone for all that time, part of the time we would spend together, it would just be her in tears." 

McClinton said it was feedback from young women that propelled her to pursue a statewide change.

"Even if they didn't start with psychological struggles," she said, "by the time their case was complete, there were a lot of things they were struggling with because of that solitary confinement."