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Onondaga County moving to reduce youth solitary confinement

Nell Conway

The Onondaga County policy of placing 16- and 17-year olds into solitary confinement at the Jamesville Correctional facility is under the microscope.

The Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS) has started a campaign to end the use of solitary confinement for these teens. Mike Hungerford, co-chairmain of ACTS Criminal Justice Task Force, said their research shows some 16- and 17-year olds are left in jail cells with no other human contact for 23 hours in a day.

"That it has an extremely adverse impact on youth whose brains are still developing," Hungerford said.

Credit ACTS
The Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse (ACTS) protested youth solitary confinement this weekend in Syracuse

Hungerford said their investigation shows these punitive restrictions are often imposed for minor infractions such as disobedience of orders, joking around, arguing, being disrespectful, fighting and possession contraband. He said Onondaga County is one of the few in the state that puts kids in this kind of isolation.

"Rikers has an average about 500 youth in New York City. They don’t do it anymore," Hungerford said. "They’ve stopped doing it. If they can figure out how not to do it at Rikers, it seems to me that Onondaga County ought to be able to figure out how to do it.”

Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney agrees that it is not the best situation for these youths, who often haven’t yet been convicted yet of a crime.

“These are kids," Mahoney said. "And, they’re kids who have a whole lot of issues and unfortunately being at the Jamesville Correctional facility, it’s not really working.”

Mahoney, who’s running for re-election this fall, said she’s ordered a change.

"I’ve made the decision to keep the 16- and 17-year olds at the public safety building," Mahoney said. "So, we’re going to stop moving the 16- and 17-year olds to Jamesville."

Mahoney notes that making this adjustment causes some problems in Onondaga County’s overcrowded criminal justice system. It will force more overtime for guards, which has been an issue for years in county government. It will also require moving other inmates from the downtown facility to Jamesville and, if that fills up, to  jails in other counties -- another costly proposition. She said there are safety issues for youth and guards, for example if members of opposing street gangs are in the same area.

Ultimately, Mahoney believes the best place for these kids is the Hillbrook Juvenile Detention Center. That, however, is only possible with help from the state, which has a policy of treating all youth 16 and older as adults. There is a “raise the age” movement, but it hasn’t gone anywhere in Albany.

"There is a conversation at the state level about raising the age, so maybe, ultimately, 16- and 17-year olds would be at Hillbrook, which is a much more appropriate facility," Mahoney said. "But right now by law, they are in our correctional facility.”

As for Hungerford and the other members of ACTS, they just want to make sure the county continues to listen to what they say is extremely damaging treatment to these youth.

“We don’t really care where the county decides to hold the youth," Hungerford said. "That’s entirely up to them. There’s good things and bad things no matter where they are. We just don’t want any of the youth to be placed into solitary confinement. At Jamesville, at the Justice Center, or anywhere else where they may be sent.”

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.