One of this year’s Molly Prizes–named for the late journalist Molly Ivins, and sponsored by the Texas Observer–has gone to  a powerful story about teenagers held in solitary confinement in adult jails in Texas, before they have been tried or convicted of any crime. Chris Vogel’s story “For Their Own Good” appeared in the Houston Press in June.  The piece begins with the story of a boy named George.

For the past six months, George has been living alone in a small cell on the second floor of the Harris County jail awaiting trial on charges of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon. Prosecutors say he was one of a group of boys who robbed and assaulted a married couple at gunpoint.

George (not his real name) has been held in isolation 23 hours a day even though he has not been convicted of a crime.

He is 15 years old.

He desperately misses his mom.

In most cases, teens ages 14 to 16 would be held before trial in the county’s juvenile facility, but George has been certified to stand trial as an adult, which means he is housed across the street at the “Big Jail.”

Authorities say that to keep George and other juveniles like him safe from older, hardened criminals in the general population, George should spend his days in near solitary confinement.

But this decision to protect juveniles may actually make life much worse for them, critics say.

Liz Ryan, Director of Youth Justice, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., says data shows that juveniles are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail than a juvenile detention facility and 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population.

Vogel tells the story of another teen whose case never even went to trial. But before it was dropped, the 16-year-old had spent a year in isolation, which he described as “mental agony.”

“It made me want to act crazy,” he says, “but I knew I wasn’t a crazy person. I know that in their eyes we’re adults and criminals, but at the same time, we’re very young and we haven’t been convicted. We’re just sitting there. You get crazy thoughts, like you want to hurt somebody or hurt yourself.”

Vogel’s investigation found that in 2008, 83 teens in Harris County were “certified” to stand trial as adults. Since in many cases their families cannot afford bail, they remain in jail awaiting trial, where they are often placed in solitary confinement “for their own protection.” 

“The treatment of these kids has slipped under the radar,” Vogel writes. “Even the judges who certify them as adults and many county officials seem unaware that this legal determination sends the teens to isolation.” He points out: “They have not been convicted of anything, yet their treatment — the isolation — is akin to the severe, short-term punishment of adult prisoners who have already been condemned. And there they sit, for months, even years, before ever going to trial.”

The rest of the article examines the certification process (which is little more than a rubber stamp), the laws that keep these kids in adult jails instead of juvenile facilities, and the conditions in which they live. It also looks at arguments on the effects of soltiary confinement on children–which, as you might imagine, can be profound. Vogel ends with the story of another boy, called Diego.

Like George, Diego says time drones on, blending into one seamless, never ending day. He is bored constantly. So bored, he says, that some days he can’t even concentrate to read. Occasionally, he catches himself talking to himself out loud. At times he’s thought he was hallucinating. Like many other teens in segregation, he’ll beat on his cell door and try to start a riot, “sometimes because we didn’t get our full hour out of our cell and sometimes because there’s nothing else to do.”

He says he can’t wait to turn 17 and get placed in with other inmates, or get convicted and go to prison, just so he can escape the isolation.

“The worst thing is the pain of being alone in my cell 23 hours a day,” he says. “This is the worst place I have ever been.”

H/T to Alan for telling us about this award-winning piece, which we missed the first time around.


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