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Michigan still subjecting juveniles to solitary confinement

Jun 9, 2015

Credit aapo haapanen

By now, many of you know about the tragic story out of the Bronx this weekend. 

Kalief Browder was sent to Rikers Island in 2010 when he was 16 years old. He never had a trial or a criminal conviction (the original accusation was that he took a backpack), but he was forced to stay there for three years anyway. Browder struggled after his release, and on Saturday he took his own life.

Browder spent about two of his three years on Rikers Island in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is an astonishingly harsh, some would say torturous, punishment. For young people with developing brains, the effects can be disastrous.

Solitary confinement is not only used for the worst of the worst prisoners, it is used for the most vulnerable. It is routine for mentally ill prisoners and juveniles to be placed in solitary confinement for their own protection.

Individual prisons like Rikers have responded to this flood of information and banned the use of solitary confinement on juveniles. Just shy of half the states in the country ban the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

Michigan does not. Michigan also does not ban the use of solitary confinement on juveniles in adult prisons.

Kristen Staley says some change may be on the way, but it is still in the early days. The organization Stanley works with, the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, has done a lot of research and policy work on this issue.

Stanley says she expects a few legislators from both parties to introduce a package of reforms soon, designed to update the way juveniles are treated in the criminal justice system.

In Michigan, solitary confinement is called “administrative segregation.” The new bills would not ban this practice when it comes to young people but would limit this kind of isolation to five days.

Stanley says she hopes this rule would be unnecessary. Another piece of model legislation that could be introduced soon would keep juveniles out of adult prison altogether.

Right now, Michigan is one of only a few states that automatically charges all 17-year-olds in trouble with the law as adults. Stanley’s organization wants to see all juvenile offenders kept with other juveniles. If necessary, they can be transferred to an adult facility once they age out of that system.

A previous version of this article identified Kristin Staley as Kristin Stanley.