On a rainy afternoon in Tampa, a boy is sent to his room as punishment for refusing to finish breakfast. He goes in, closes the door and pulls out his Nintendo Switch from under his pillow to play Pokémon. In 30 minutes, his mom tells him he can come out, he plays with his dog, and then they meet his cousins at the Gulf of Mexico for a beach day. As he chases seagulls, he forgets he had been sent to his room this morning.
Less than two hours away at Lowell Correctional Facility in Marion County, Catherine Jones, a 13-year-old girl, was sent to solitary confinement for an indefinite period. While in solitary, she was passed cold meals through a slot in the cell’s door. Cockroaches and ants kept her awake at night. She had to use the metal commode in the same closet-sized space she slept in. The cell had no ventilation and was so hot Catherine would dip her sheets in the toilet and lay them over her body to prevent heat exhaustion. Like the boy described previously, Catherine was of middle school age. Unlike the boy, however, Catherine’s is a true story.
Florida practices isolation of children in both its adult and juvenile facilities. According to the 2020-2021 Florida Department of Corrections Annual Report, 63 incarcerated children were aged 17 and under at time of admission. We know at a minimum, approximately 26 percent of children in Florida’s Department of Corrections are in solitary confinement at any given time.
The number of children held in solitary confinement in Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice is just as shocking. In a judicial order certifying a class action brought by children who experienced solitary confinement against Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice, Judge Robert Hinkle writes, “The department’s own data show that it placed between 2,720 and 3,853 children in solitary confinement each year from 2014 to 2020.”
Hinkle quotes conditions the minors experienced in Department of Juvenile Justice’s solitary confinement: “No … exercise; inadequate sanitation; leaving children in locked cells for hours or days with nothing to do; only … a few minutes each day to shower; requiring children to eat all their meals alone in their cells next to a toilet; removal of personal property; no school instruction; and only requiring mental health services after 42 hours in isolation.”
Solitary confinement negatively impacts children’s mental health. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Among incarcerated youth who die by suicide, half were in isolation when they took their own lives, and 62 percent had been in solitary confinement at some point.”
Moreover, holding children in solitary confinement is costly. The Florida Department of Corrections’s 2020-2021 Annual Report does not include the cost of solitary confinement. However, the National Institute of Corrections found that in California, Colorado and Illinois on average it costs thousands of dollars more to keep a person in solitary confinement than in general population. This is exorbitant and unnecessary. The Southern Poverty Law Center asserts, states that have reduced or eliminated the use of solitary confinement of children have saved up to $8 million annually.
Floridians can stand against the solitary confinement of children like Catherine Jones. Call your legislators and express support in ending solitary confinement for minors. Two bills prohibit solitary confinement of children this legislative session in Florida. Sen. Annette Taddeo sponsors SB 1934 and Rep. Michele Rayner, representative for the St. Petersburg area, sponsors a similar bill, HB 765.
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You may call the senator at (850) 487-5040 and the representative at (850) 717-5070 at their Tallahassee offices. You can also express your support of the bills to committee chairs. HB 765 is currently in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Subcommittee headed by Committee Chair, Rep. Chuck Brannan. His Tallahassee office phone number is (850) 717-5010.
Emily Wood is a second-year law student at the Florida State University College of Law. She is a Certified Legal Intern in the Human Exploitation Law Project at the Public Interest Law Center. To learn more about solitary confinement of children in Florida, watch Catherine Jones’ interview with the FSU College of Law Public Interest Law Center: https://youtu.be/GymFj0BOEkE