The First Step Act is Only the First Step for Juvenile Justice
By Tigerlily Theo Hopson
August 2, 2019
Eddie Ellis is still haunted by the sounds of solitary confinement: keys clanking, doors slamming, people yelling. These are the sounds of his childhood; for ten years Mr. Ellis sat alone in cramped cells, many without windows or proper ventilation. Rodents sometimes crawled across the concrete ground, and in the summer, when it was hot and the toilet got clogged up, the putrid smell filled up the air of his solitary cell.
On July 19, 3,100 inmates were released under the implementation of the the First Step Act, which was passed in December 2018. Section 613 of the Act, endorsed tirelessly by Senator Cory Booker, bans juveniles from solitary confinement, but only in federal prisons. According to both, the Juvenile Law Center and Solitary Watch — two organizations that fight for criminal justice reform, it is highly unlikely that more than a handful of juveniles were released from solitary confinement due to the First Step Act. According to Senator Booker’s office, the next step will be to fight for the passage of the Next Step Act, and it won’t still do enough to help teens held nationwide in solitary confinement.
In conjunction with the First Step Act, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was also reauthorized in December 2018, calling for state prisons to release detailed information regarding policies, procedures, and training to end dangerous practices such as severe solitary confinement.
Ellis, now 44, was 16 when he was sentenced to 22 years in prison. His story is not a rare one. There is little knowledge of the exact number of children that languish in solitary confinement currently, but experts say the number is in the thousands. According to Jessica Feierman of the Juvenile Law Center, many state prisons call solitary confinement areas “time out” or “segregation” zones, in order to conceal them, making it near impossible to find the exact number of children who are currently held in solitary.
This legislation is a step forward, but there is more to be done according to the Juvenile Law Center, whose main focus is on litigation addressing solitary confinement in state-run facilities. The Juvenile Law Center was recently involved in a lawsuit against a prison in Wisconsin which held young people in solitary regularly. “The rare occasions when they did get out, they were shackled to tables, and we also heard they were getting pepper-sprayed within their solitary cells, so that was a set of facts we were extremely concerned about,” Feierman of the Juvenile Law Center said.
Johnny Perez, who is now an advocate for criminal justice reform, was sent to Rikers Island when he was 16 years old and spent 60 days in solitary confinement. Perez was often abused by correctional officers. “That was difficult to deal with, just being at the complete mercy of someone else.” Perez recounts an officer telling him, “I could kill you, and no one would come looking for you.” In solitary, Perez had no reading material, so he would spend his days sleeping and making up poetry, which he would memorize.
Eddie Ellis’ experience in solitary confinement, like Johnny Perez’s, was destructive and dehumanizing. Ellis tried to not let his “mind get lost within those walls… I fantasized about having my mom and my pop around, you know like us going grocery shopping. That helped me in a lot of ways to keep my mind out of my cell where I was physically,” he said.
Feierman of the Juvenile Law Center argues that an effective way to get juveniles out of solitary confinement is to revoke federal funding from all facilities that utilize juvenile solitary confinement. Instead, funding could be given to programs that offer better options for incarcerated youth.
Transitioning out from solitary confinement is traumatizing, according to Ellis, who is now a coordinator for Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN) and is married, with three children. When Ellis was released from solitary and arrived home, he kept himself locked in his room. It took him a long time “trying to learn what it meant to be free.” Along with banning solitary confinement in state prisons for youth, Ellis points out it is imperative to offer services to help them through this transition. He suggests that after solitary there should be programs to help formerly incarcerated people socialize, and social workers should help reunify families.
Ellis has been able to slowly move on from his childhood in confinement, but even now, 13 years later, he is haunted by the noises heard from behind locked, double doors, of yelling, keys clanking, and doors slamming.
The passage of Section 613 of the First Step Act is an advancement for juveniles in solitary confinement, but according to advocates for juvenile justice, it is only the first step.