Community members protest solitary confinement of youth at the Justice Center

Local organizations filed a lawsuit against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department last month. So why are 16 and 17-year-olds still being placed in “the box?”

Luchele Chisunka’s hands trembled as she addressed the crowd of approximately fifty protesters who gathered at the Onondaga County Justice Center on Thursday. Throughout the hour, and despite the rain clouds overhead, she and other representatives from local advocacy groups shared the stories of Randy, Walta, Charnasha and Yvette: four juveniles who had been routinely placed in solitary confinement at the center for days to months at a time without access to education.

Photo: Samantha Mendoza

"I was 16 years old when I went to jail and I was locked up in solitary for 30 days,” read a statement from Charnasha. “Being in isolation made me feel crazy. I didn't think I would make it out alive.”

The treatment of these youth is the subject of a lawsuit filed last month against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department and the Syracuse City School District by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York.

The lawsuit states that the practice of solitary confinement as a punishment tactic for children violates the U.S. Constitution and federal education laws.

But according to representatives from the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) and the Alliance for Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS), organizations that have been investigating the prison since 2014, children are still being placed in solitary and mistreated by prison guards.

Over the past year, 86 children have served a collective total of seven years in solitary confinement at the Onondaga County Justice Center, and this practice continues today, according to research by the CCA.

“What we’re demanding is an injunction for [the Justice Center] to stop putting kids in solitary for the duration of the lawsuit,” said Emily NaPier, director of justice strategies for the CCA. “We want to show that there is public outrage about this practice. It’s not just something that a group of attorneys took interest in. It’s something that the entire community is horrified by.”

The protest was organized by the CCA as part of the Dignity in Schools National Week of Action, a campaign that raises awareness about systemic issues in the education and prison system. The theme for this year was “Lift us up, don’t push us out,” a phrase that could be seen on many of the handmade signs that protestors waved at cars that drove past the prison.

Yusuf Abdul-Quadir, the director of the Central New York region of NYCLU, explained the extent of the injustices at the prison in an address to the crowd.

“It’s important to note that many of these children are pre-trial. Some of them have never actually been in front of a judge,” Abdul-Qadir said. “Many of these children-- and I have to repeat, children-- are under conditions that are not just unconstitutional, not just immoral, but a denial of basic human rights.”

According to affidavits in the case, 16 and 17-year-olds are placed in solitary confinement for minor offenses, such as wearing the wrong shoes or singing too loudly. While in solitary, the children are not allowed to take part in programming or have instructional education, and are instead given a packet of scanned worksheets through the cell door, said Josh Cotter, a co-lead counsel for the case.

The effect of this isolation is severe: one child placed in solitary began cutting his wrists after just one day in “the box,” and almost all have reported having suicidal thoughts.

Clifford Ryans, a community activist for the group OGs Against Violence, shared at the protest how helpless he felt as a father when his son was placed in solitary confinement in 1992.

“He went through brutality and abuse by the corrections officers, and there wasn’t really much I could do,” Ryans said. “I could go in and speak to the correctional officials, but at the end of the day, he was still gonna have to be in there with them. I’m hoping the lawsuit can help make some changes, because we need officials held accountable.”

New York is only one of two states in the country that charges 16 and 17-year-olds as adults and places them in adult correctional facilities, a practice that affects 50,000 children a year, 80% of which are minorities, according to Raise the Age NY, a movement that aims to change state laws to charge individuals under the age of 18 as juveniles.

“We wouldn’t have to be talking about this barbaric practice of solitary confinement of 16 and 17-year-olds if we weren’t locking them up in adult jails in the first place,” said NaPier. “But the reality is there are kids in that jail still in solitary confinement even though the lawsuit was filed, and we really do need to demand an immediate end to that.”

The Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department and the Syracuse City School District are unable to comment on the case due to pending litigation.

A follow-up protest, the “Rally for Justice” against solitary confinement and in support of Raise the Age NY, will be hosted by ACTS on Oct. 30 at 3 p.m. at the Tucker Missionary Baptist Church.

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