(Photo by Tony Abraham)
When he was 16 years old, Johnny Perez was arrested for gun possession and sentenced to solitary confinement at Rikers Island. When he arrived at the New York prison, a corrections officer informed him he would be spending time in a unit called the “butcher shop.”
“That’s where most of our cuttings happen,” Perez recalls the officer saying. He soon learned why.
Perez remembers counting the bricks in the walls, the long stretches of dead silence interrupted by the piercing sounds of screaming from his peers, the pulse of his own heartbeat.
It was dehumanizing, and the experience contributed to Perez, now a non-attorney advocate at the Urban Justice Center‘s Mental Health Project, spending a total of 13 years in the criminal justice system. He spoke about his experience with solitary confinement on a recent panel at the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is hosting photographer Richard Ross‘ exhibition Juvenile In Justice now through September 4.
“After a while I began to think, ‘Maybe I am just a criminal,'” he said. “I had to fight for commissary, the phone and my humanity in a lot of different ways. No one ever gets out of solitary. You survive solitary.”
Early this year, President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. The problem with that, said Juvenile Law Center cofounder Marsha Levick, is that the executive action will only benefit the three dozen or so youths sentenced to confinement in federal prisons.
"We're chipping away at what's a pervasive practice in this country. But there's much more to do going forward."
“About 20 states have banned solitary confinement of children, but those bans take different forms,” Levick said. That’s because “solitary confinement” can be defined in different ways, and some states get away with the practice by calling it “isolation” or “time-out.”
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“We’re chipping away at what’s a pervasive practice in this country,” Levick said. “But there’s much more [to do] going forward.”
Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture by several institutions and organizations including the International Human Rights Commission.
“It’s a very traumatic experience,” said Drexel University professor Naomi Goldstein. There are no positive experiences for youths in the criminal justice system, especially those in solitary. “That’s critically important. You’re depriving kids of normal experiences.”
“We’ve come to a point in our country where we’re punishing kids for being kids,” Perez said.
If we want to find an effective solution, Perez said, it’s necessary to include the voices of the people who are directly affected by solitary confinement when designing legislation.
If you want to grow the best tomatoes, he said, invite the best farmers to the table.
“If you chip away at this issue, you can get results,” Ross said. “Solitary is the low-hanging fruit. It’s a no-brainer. The mass incarceration of kids and adults is the bigger issue.”-30-
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