Updated 3:51 p.m.
Eight, by six, by eight. Those are the dimensions, in feet, of the true-to-size, see-through solitary confinement cell currently on display at the Free Library, Parkway Central branch.
It’s one component of Juvenile In Justice: End Solitary Confinement, an exhibit that opens today. Arts nonprofit InLiquid and the Juvenile Law Center have partnered to show the work of photographer Richard Ross and raise awareness around the issue. While data on rates of juvenile solitary confinement can be tough to track, a 2012 ACLU report notes that not a day goes by without a juvenile spending time in solitary. The opening reception and panel discussion begins this evening and is free and open to the public.
This exhibit comes just days before the DNC. InLiquid Executive Director Rachel Zimmerman explains that Ross very much wanted to present the work during a time when public officials and organizers from around the country would be in town. “You know, we’re voting for a new president, sort of a new start, how do we get people to realize that this is just wrong?” says Zimmerman of the thought process. Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center, sees an opportunity to have a larger conversation on a nationwide ban. “To make a change, we need full community involvement,” says Feierman. “None of us would want our own child in a cell, the size of eight by six, or seven by seven. It’s essentially like putting your child in a closet and leaving them there.” Visitors will be able to walk into the cell themselves for a sense.
According a late 2015 report out of the Lowenstein Center for Public Interest, 20 states and D.C. have juvenile solitary confinement bans. Another 20 mandate that the practice can only be implemented under time limits — anywhere from six hours to 90 days. Ten states have no such regulations in place. The report also makes an important distinction: the analysis is for punitive solitary confinement; even in states where that is illegal, juvenile solitary confinement may still take place for other reasons, like “safety concerns.”
Feierman says there are also cases that may slip by statutes. “Pennsylvania’s regulations— not our state law— prohibit the use of solitary confinement in most cases for young people. However, in practice, we have been hearing that it’s actually been happening,” says Feierman. An example the Juvenile Law Center has heard is that a young person might “be held behind a closed door that isn’t locked, but has an officer on the other side… Unfortunately, there’s more work to do at home as well.”
InLiquid has worked with Richard Ross to exhibit work on this topic for the last three years, Zimmerman explains. A small installation at Eastern State (that’s still on view) included audio of incarcerated youths that they’ve decided to leave out this time.
“Everyone at Eastern State reacted— it’s just too painful,” says Zimmerman. “It’s too much of a public space. You really have to make that choice to listen to it.” The cell is also more “interpretive” than the replicas they’ve mounted in the past. They’ve kept the specs, but the frame is wrapped in industrial cellophane. This choice also came from concern over presenting something that may be too triggering for a public library. Cell replicas have been “in art installations, in art spaces where people really know what they’re walking in there to see,” says Evan Thornburg, who designed the cell. They didn’t want the exhibit to be “trauma triggering” for someone visiting the library for resources or another event.
I didn’t know that an exhibit like this could call trigger warnings. And then I saw it. Quotes accompany the images. “I’m doing my ‘seg time,” a 16-year-old said, explaining that he was put in solitary. “I spend all day and night in here. No mattress, no sheets and I get all my meals in this slot.”
Another photograph captures a 10-year-old boy with his back turned, as if he’s simply on time-out. “I’m waiting for my mom to come get me. Is she in there? She’s at work today. I want to go home. I got in trouble in school today,” he said.
The consensus among experts is that solitary confinement can be mentally deleterious for detainees of all ages, but poses a heightened risk to minors. The brain doesn’t stop developing until a person reaches their mid-20s, experts note.
In a policy statement condemning the practice, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry explains:
“The potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis. Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions. Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”
Juvenile In Justice: End Solitary Confinement will stay at the Free Library until Sept. 4, before moving on to the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania. With the photographs in the gallery space, and the cell in the hall, there’s also a display with shackles and prison uniforms.
The Juvenile Law Center confirmed Thursday afternoon the final lineup for the panel: Journalist Solomon Jones while serve as moderator, while the panel will count Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project Advocate Johnny Perez, Drexel Psychology Professor Naomi E. Goldstein, Juvenile Law Center Deputy Director Marsha Levick and Ross. The panel will be begin at 7 p.m. after a 5:30 p.m. reception.
“There is right now a conversation around solitary confinement that hadn’t been happening before. Obama’s executive order is one example of it,” says Feierman. (Obama banned juvenile solitary confinement from federal facilities in January.) “But there’s been changes in states and individual juvenile justice facilities as well… We’re at a moment where we can shine a light on something that is starting to change.”