BALTIMORE (AP) — Teenagers awaiting trial on adult charges in Baltimore are being kept in solitary confinement for far too long — up to 143 days in one case, according to a highly critical review by the U.S. Justice Department's Division of Civil Rights.
Federal prosecutors say being isolated for more than a few days can damage a person's mental health — especially if it's a teenager whose brain is still developing. But teenagers accused of breaking rules inside the Baltimore City Detention Center are being isolated for 13 days on average, and in some cases, far longer.
The latest federal review found some improvements, but concluded that eight years after the state of Maryland entered into an agreement with the Justice Department, the embattled jail is still violating state laws and the U.S. Constitution when it comes to handling teens in custody:
— Very few staffers have any training in adolescent development, trauma, and mental health and developmental disabilities, the review found.
— The jail is failing to consistently provide its teens with drug treatment, anger management programs, education, rehabilitation or even exercise, which the federal prosecutors described as their constitutional right.
— One minor, RC, spent 143 days in seclusion. Another, EM, spent 53 of his 105 days in solitary confinement at the detention center.
— When juveniles are accused of breaking a rule, they are put into seclusion for 7 to 14 days for a first offense, and must wait roughly 80 days before a disciplinary hearing is held.
"This is grossly excessive and violates basic principles of Due Process," the Justice Department concludes. "It is even more troubling for the 24 percent of juveniles in seclusion who are ultimately found not guilty under the disciplinary process."
The letter was based in part on a site visit last August and delivered just as Stephen Moyer, a police veteran who served as deputy Juvenile Services secretary in Maryland, was confirmed to run the state's jails and prisons. Moyer pledged to make juvenile detention reforms a top priority.
State prisons spokesman Gerard Shields told The Associated Press on Friday that even juveniles held in seclusion are let out of their cells from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. to attend school, and that 30 guards have completed new training with the state Department of Juvenile Services.
Many jails routinely isolate teenagers — the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that of the roughly 100,000 juveniles incarcerated, 17,000 have been in solitary confinement. This often happens so that adult jails can comply with the "sight and sound separation" required by the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act since 2012.
But in Baltimore's jail, which already keeps juveniles separate from adults, isolation is used primarily to punish alleged rule-breakers, they found.
Federal investigators concluded nearly 15 years ago that isolating youths in cells for lengthy periods was "excessive and potentially harmful." Eight years have passed since the jail promised it would change.
"It's really disturbing to know these kids are being held in isolation, and that the department is continuing to use solitary confinement," said Kara Aanenson, director of advocacy for Just Kids Partnership. "I see the ramifications: pacing back and forth, having a hard time being in a room with the door closed. These things impact them for the rest of their lives."
Jabriera Handy, now 23, said she spent 11 months at the Baltimore City Detention Center when she was 17 after she was charged with second-degree murder in the death of her grandmother. She said she's still haunted by the 36 days she spent in seclusion.
"Now I pace the floor all the time. I'm always pacing because that's all I did when I was in there," Handy said. "After that, when I was assigned to a room by myself I hurt myself because I didn't want to be there anymore. I scratched my arms up. I broke my own pinkie because I punched a wall. I bit my tongue. Solitary confinement took a toll on my mental state."