Philly City Council to call for hearings on juvenile offenders in solitary confinement

Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is among Council members who plan to introduce a resolution Thursday calling for hearings on the treatment of young people under 18 years old.

The use of punitive segregation for juveniles held in Philadelphia's adult jails will likely come under scrutiny at a City Council hearing in the near future.

Council members Kenyatta Johnson, Helen Gym and Curtis Jones plan to introduce a resolution Thursday calling for hearings on the treatment of young people under 18 years old, who are facing adult charges and are held at the city jails on State Road pretrial.

As the Inquirer reported Wednesday, teens in adult jails face isolation for a variety of reasons: in punitive segregation, which is more common among young inmates and can sometimes last for a month at a time; in a cell, alone, on a mental-health unit, where they may be given nothing but a "suicide smock" to wear; or as a matter of practical necessity, in the case of a teenage girl who was the only minor in all of Riverside Correctional Facility. 

Johnson raised the issue at a City Council budget hearing on Tuesday, citing the Inquirer's coverage from last year and the story of Kalief Browder, the New York teen who took his own life after spending about two years in solitary at Rikers Island. 

"I definitely did some things as a juvenile that I would never do now as an adult, so I take this very seriously," he said at the hearing. "Because if we can help our young people rehabilitate early on, we won’t have to deal with them going on to Graterford [Prison]."

The draft resolution indicates that the hearings also will explore whether the juveniles, though charged as adults, can await trial in the Juvenile Justice Services Center, the city's juvenile detention center.

At Tuesday's hearing, Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney denied that juveniles are held in solitary, though the practice of punitive segregation does include them being kept in a cell up to 23 hours per day. 

"There is, on occasion, time when we have to separate because they may have gotten into a fight, and we can’t allow further injury of any sort," she said. "For that purpose, they are not just placed in a cell with no human interaction. If anything, we have rounds by our psychology team, our social workers, and our correctional staff, so it's never 'solitary' as other jurisdictions have defined it."

Still, last August, leaders at the Philadelphia Department of Prisons said they hoped to stop holding juveniles in segregation within three months. At the hearing, Carney said options under consideration to attain that goal include a program of goals and incentives, an initiative to increase out-of-cell time gradually, and the purchase of something called safety tables and safety chairs. Later, a spokesperson clarified those would involve some sort of restraints that would keep a young person seated.

"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.