SOLI­TARY

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tions – be­tween young in­mates and de­ten­tion of­fi­cers.

“If you con­tinue to dis­grace (a young of­fender), and you con­tinue to strip him of his dig­nity and you never give him a foun­da­tion to be a pro­duc­tive cit­i­zen – on day 13, when he gets out of the jail, what hap­pens?” McFad­den asked.

‘A CRAZY LIFE’

One 17-year-old in­mate told the Ob­server he spent about 10 days in­side the DDU last year. He said there was lit­tle to do in­side his cell there but sleep, eat, think and do push-ups.

“Once you get in there, it’s like be­ing trapped in a box,” said the in­mate, who has be­gun serv­ing a sen­tence for armed rob­bery “I think it’s a crazy life. Just sit­ting in that cell.”

The in­mate said he is happy for the new op­por­tu­ni­ties out­side the DDU. He is at­tend­ing classes with other young of­fend­ers at Jail North and hopes to get his GED.

“It’s turned my whole life around, to be hon­est,” he said.

Af­ter tak­ing over as sher­iff, McFad­den said he sat down to talk to the teens in the DDU four times and has es­tab­lished a “great re­la­tion­ship” with them. He said he told them that his New Year’s res­o­lu­tion was to close the soli­tary con­fine­ment unit. The unit was for­mally shut­tered on New Year’s Day.

“They said, ‘What do we have to do?’ ” McFad­den said, re­call­ing his con­ver­sa­tion with some of the young of­fend­ers. “I said, ‘You’ve got to work with me be­cause I’m putting my name and rep­u­ta­tion on the line.’ ”

McFad­den said one 16-year-old in the soli­tary con­fine­ment unit had read the en­tire Bi­ble. Then he re­quested a copy of the Qu­ran. McFad­den got him a copy.

That in­mate spent 13 days in the DDU in De­cem­ber.

He told an Ob­server re­porter that he would try to read his copy of the Qu­ran in­side his cell. But he found it dif­fi­cult to con­cen­trate, he said, be­cause the en­vi­ron­ment was “loud and ob­nox­ious.”

In­mates would yell, kick their doors and some­times throw urine out of the small slits in their doors where their meals were de­liv­ered.

“It would drive you crazy,” said the 16-year-old in­mate, who was charged with rob­bery last year and later landed in the jail’s soli­tary unit for fight­ing. “We’re young. We’re not as wise as the older folks. So we lose our minds quicker.”

Af­ter leav­ing the soli­tary unit, he said, “it was just peace­ful.”

The Ob­server is not iden­ti­fy­ing the teenage in­mates be­cause they are mi­nors.

‘YOU CAN­NOT SPIT ON MY DEPUTIES’

Sher­iff’s Sgt. Avis Hen­der­son, who has worked with young of­fend­ers at Jail North for nearly two decades, said she has seen changes with teenage in­mates in the week since the DDU was closed.

“Now, they can ex­press their anger as op­posed to act­ing out,” she said.

De­ten­tion in the DDU some­times seemed to make young of­fend­ers be­have worse, Hen­der­son said.

But she be­lieves young of­fend­ers who as­sault oth­ers still need to face con­se­quences.

“The DDU is some­thing I think we can get away from,” Hen­der­son said. “But what do we do when there is a sit­u­a­tion like an as­sault on staff?”

McFad­den said his of­fice is work­ing to re­fine new dis­ci­plinary rules for young of­fend­ers. But he said that young of­fend­ers who com­mit as­saults or break other jail rules will face con­se­quences.

“You can­not put your hands on my deputies,” McFad­den said. “You can­not spit on my deputies. You can’t throw fe­ces or what­ever else on my deputies. You can’t do it. Other than that, we’re good.”

A SEARCH FOR AL­TER­NA­TIVES

In a 2016 story, the Ob­server de­scribed how teens in the DDU were held in 70-square-foot con­crete cells for 23 hours a day. They were not al­lowed to watch tele­vi­sion, go to class or talk face-to-face with other in­mates. The only phone calls they could make were to their at­tor­neys or bail bonds­men.

Many of the youths at Jail North are await­ing trial. Some are never con­victed.

Re­search has shown that soli­tary con­fine­ment can cause de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, hal­lu­ci­na­tions and rage in adults. A pre­vi­ous Ob­server in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that seven adult N.C. prison in­mates spent more than 10 years in soli­tary – a prac­tice that crit­ics called in­hu­mane.

Ex­perts say the so­cial and sen­sory de­pri­va­tion of soli­tary con­fine­ment can be even harder on youths, who aren’t as equipped to han­dle the stress.

Fol­low­ing the Ob­server’s re­port­ing about the teens who were held in soli­tary, sev­eral groups, in­clud­ing the NAACP and the ACLU, spoke out against the prac­tice.

This past Septem­ber, the sher­iff’s of­fice eased re­stric­tions on the teens in DDU. It be­gan let­ting them out of their cells for four hours each week­day.

McFad­den says he has since lifted more of the re­stric­tions be­cause he wants those teens to be able to make it in the out­side world.

That’s one of sev­eral re­forms that McFad­den has be­gun to en­act.

In De­cem­ber, McFad­den ended the county’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the 287(g) pro­gram – un­der which deputies ran in­mate names through a fed­eral data­base to de­ter­mine if they were in the coun­try il­le­gally.

And last week, McFad­den said his of­fice plans to re­store in-per­son vis­its with jail in­mates within 30 days. Face-to-face vis­its be­tween in­mates and fam­ily mem­bers and friends had ended un­der for­mer sher­iff Ir­win Carmichael in fa­vor of vis­its done solely via video mon­i­tors. McFad­den, as a can­di­date, had said video should not be the only op­tion for jail vis­its.

“We could do all this pun­ish­ment all day. But then they’re still go­ing to come out into the neigh­bor­hood,” McFad­den said. “We’re just try­ing to pre­pare some­body to re-en­ter so­ci­ety. … Let’s start now.”

Karen Si­mon, a re­tired Meck­len­burg County jail of­fi­cial, said she has been hop­ing for years that the sher­iff’s of­fice would close the teen soli­tary unit. Hold­ing in­mates that young in iso­la­tion, she con­tends, is gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned abuse.

“To see that DDU with empty cells is a dream come true,” she said.

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