At age 16, Donyea Phillips hit rock bottom in segregated housing at Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, with a bed sheet for a noose.
“As my fingers and toes started going numb, I remembered Sarah,” he said. That’s Sarah Morris, who runs arts workshops for children in the city’s adult jails: She was the only person he could recall encouraging him. “She told me I was good at writing poems. At the last minute, I remembered that. When I got a sheet around my neck, she saved my life.”
Phillips, now 25 and serving 25 to 50 years for shooting and wounding two police officers he thought were home intruders, did not attempt suicide again. But he said he spent nine of 11 months at PICC in isolation. (Morris confirmed that he was segregated most of that year.)
“It was the worst time of my life,” he said by phone from the State Correctional Institution in Dallas.
Suicide is the top cause of death among incarcerated juveniles, and a U.S. Department of Justice study found half those suicides take place in solitary confinement. Psychologists say isolation also can inflict lasting damage on developing brains and trigger or exacerbate mental illness.
In January, President Obama announced that children in federal custody would no longer be held in solitary confinement. He cited the suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder, who at 16 had been arrested on robbery charges and never recovered from spending two years in solitary on Rikers Island in New York. In May, advocates launched a “Stop Solitary for Kids” campaign, targeting county and state institutions nationwide.
But for children from Philadelphia, it is not unusual to end up in isolation. In 2015, juveniles at PICC were placed in punitive segregation 41 times, for an average of 32 days. And, while state law bans seclusion for youths in juvenile placements, advocates say a loophole allows facilities to isolate them for weeks or months.
“The national conversation about solitary is happening on a level that isn’t consistent with what’s often happening on the ground,” said Joanna Visser Adjoian, of the nonprofit Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project. “In Philadelphia, solitary confinement is used against children even in pretrial situations, where they have not been convicted of anything.”
But Shawn Hawes, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia jails, said, “No one is actually held in solitary.” Rather, Hawes said, they are held in punitive or administrative segregation.
In a punitive case, a juvenile found to have violated a rule can be punished with a fixed term of segregation. Juveniles segregated for administrative reasons do not face set terms and are reviewed about weekly, Hawes said. In either setting, a juvenile is alone in a cell at least 22 hours a day.
The issue made news in New Jersey in 2010, when the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center (JLC) sued on behalf of a teenager who came out of seven months in solitary with severe self-mutilation. A subsequent law limited solitary confinement for children in New Jersey, and a bill passed by the state Senate in June would end juvenile solitary altogether.
At PICC, said Michelle Mason, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, it comes up “constantly.” Visser Adjoian and Lauren Fine, co-founders of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, said three of 12 clients they had visited there have been in segregation.
Fine said those clients are shackled when she meets them.
“There’s sort of a dead look in a kid’s eye when they’ve been spending the entire day in a locked room by themselves,” Fine said. “It is really jarring to see a 16-year-old kid with chains around his belly and hands and feet, and to see that look.”
Some are segregated for fighting or talking back, they said.
One woman, who did not want to be identified because her son is still on the juvenile block at PICC, said her son had been in punitive segregation four times for 30 days apiece. One stint was for fighting, another for intervening in a fight. The most recent was for accessing the internet on a school computer, she said. She found out when she tried to visit, she said. Those in punitive segregation are denied visits and, for the first 15 days, calls.
But PICC Deputy Warden Claudette Martin said she was exploring alternatives: “They’re still kids, and they still think like kids. We think the current policy that is in effect, of the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, should only apply to the adult population, not the juvenile population. There are changes that are currently in the making.”
She said she could not say what the alternatives may be, but she said they could be initiated within three months.
For now, she said, very lengthy periods of segregation – such as those achieved by adding an administrative term to a punitive one – are “rare.”
But that’s what Malik Parker said happened while he was awaiting trial at PICC from September 2013 to August 2014. Parker, now in the State Correctional Institution at Pine Grove for shooting at police at age 16, said he was segregated for about six months.
“The prison assumed I was striving to start a violent organization,” he said. “At first I was told 30 days, then it was open-ended. After about 41/2 months, I was told to write a letter on why I should be allowed out into population.”
He was allowed out, but then segregated again when a homemade knife was found in his cell.
Naomi Goldstein, a Drexel University psychologist and director of the Juvenile Justice Research and Reform Lab there, said any segregation is particularly damaging for youths. Young people are more likely to harm themselves because they are impulsive, emotional, and short-term focused.
“In solitary,” she said, “it’s hard to imagine ever getting out. So you’ve got that emotional response, combined with the sense of hopelessness.”
Hawes said juveniles are assessed by mental health and medical staff before being segregated. But she said she could not recall a juvenile being diverted from segregation for health reasons.
Donyea Phillips, who said he was segregated for nine months after an altercation with a guard, was later found to have bipolar disorder.
“I didn’t know why my thoughts were the way they were,” he said.
California-based photographer Richard Ross, who has met more than 1,000 youths in solitary in confinement over the last 10 years – his photos of them are at the Free Library on the Parkway through Sept. 4 – said most come from poor, chaotic, abusive backgrounds.
“These are kids that need help; they don’t need destruction. That’s what solitary does,” he said.
In juvenile facilities, the Juvenile Law Center’s Jessica Feierman said, more states are recognizing that. “More than 20 states now prohibit punitive solitary by law, regulation or practice,” she said.
Restrictions were most successful where administrators led the reform. “It’s been critical to engage in culture change,” she said.
In Pennsylvania, state law and policy ban seclusion or locking a youth in a room at a juvenile facility. They also limit exclusion – restricting a child to an unlocked room or area alone – to four hours a day.
But if a staffer is present, it is not exclusion, the law says. And through that loophole, children in state facilities are sometimes isolated all day, for days, weeks, or months on end, according to Elton Anglada, chief of the juvenile unit at the Defender Association of Philadelphia.
He said he had seen youths restricted to rooms or “therapeutic work stations” – sometimes a chair in a hallway – with staff present. One youth told Anglada he had been isolated for months for refusing to cut his dreadlocks.
“It looked barbaric to me,” Anglada said. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is legal.’ ”
But, it is. “What looked to me to be solitary didn’t meet a legal definition.”
Anglada and Feierman wrote to Pennsylvania Human Services Secretary Ted Dallas in June urging reforms. Kait Gillis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, wrote in an email that, contrary to Anglada’s interpretation, work stations are not segregated. She said no data on the use of the stations are available.
“Residents are encouraged to commit to the therapeutic process,” she said, “so that they can return to all regular programming as quickly as possible.”