Black residents of Minnesota gave powerful testimony to a United Nations panel today on the devastating impacts of police violence, youth incarceration and foster care — zeroing in on the harrowing practice of placing children in solitary confinement.
More than 100 people gathered at the Urban League in North Minneapolis to listen to panelists share their experiences as young people in juvenile lockups and emergency shelters. The UN visit is part of a two-week tour examining racial justice and police violence across American cities, including Washington D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis and New York City.
Speakers at today’s event focused on kids placed in solitary confinement. A second panel testified about the impact of police brutality and police violence.
“Putting someone in solitary confinement is inhumane,” Antonio Williams said. “Putting children in solitary confinement is sick and barbaric and we do it every day here in Minnesota and across the nation.”
Delia Addo-Yobo, an attorney with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ advocacy and litigation program, shared some sobering statistics about the resulting impact: Within two weeks of being kept in solitary confinement, more than a third of people experience psychosis or suicidal thoughts. And those who have experienced solitary confinement are 78% more likely to attempt suicide within a year of being released from prison.
“Solitary confinement in Minnesota juvenile correctional facilities is rampant and out of control,” said Malaika Eban, interim executive director of The Legal Rights Center, a community-driven nonprofit law firm. “This is not the equivalent of a timeout, this is not a parent sending a child to their room. This is torture.”
Minnesota’s juvenile lockups have ordered kids into solitary confinement for 24 hours or longer more than 7,500 times in the last five years, according to data obtained by the local television station KARE 11.
In 2019, nearly 60% of people sent to solitary confinement in Minnesota were Black or Native American, according to a report from the Department of Corrections to the Minnesota Legislature.
“If any members of the public, any of us in this room were doing this to children in our homes,” Eban said, “child protection would be at our doors arresting us for abuse or removing those children.”
Eban urged passage of a bill now before the Minnesota Legislature that seeks to end the practice of solitary confinement in juvenile correctional facilities in the state.
The two experts in attendance included Tracie Keesee, senior vice president of Justice Initiatives of the Center For Policing Equity, which promotes police transparency and accountability and Juan Mendez, a professor of human rights law in residence at the American University-Washington College of Law. They listened and took notes as panelists shared their experiences in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
Lucina Kayee, the executive director of Atlas of Blackness, shared her experience as an 8-year-old placed in an emergency shelter while her stepfather was struggling with addiction.
Kayee, who said she was a quiet child with autism, was placed in what she recalled as a “dark, attic-like room” for not answering staff questions. During the week Kayee spent in the shelter, she was isolated for four days. She spent the time crying and praying to be released back to her stepfather’s house, she told the UN panel.
When Kayee found herself in the now-shuttered St. Joseph’s Home for Children, she was again locked up by herself in a cold, empty room infested with mice. After two days in solitary confinement, she said she began to hallucinate.
“Instead of solitary confinement, we call it ‘back to basics,’ ‘disciplinary room time’ and ‘registered seclusion rooms,’” Kayee said. “These are just more digestible ways to stay in solitary confinement. And in solitary confinement, it’s a digestible way to allow you to torture children.”
The first time 37-year-old Williams experienced solitary confinement, he was 12. In juvenile detention centers, he was isolated for several days at a time, he testified.
Then, when Williams ran away from a foster home at 14, police officers handcuffed him, put him in the back of a squad car and took him to a juvenile detention center, where he would spend the next six months. Most of that time, Williams said, was spent in solitary confinement.
“I was always an outgoing kid, social, approachable, goofy,” Williams said. “But what started to happen to me, after all that isolation, I got quieter and I withdrew into myself.”
Six years later, Williams ended up in an adult prison, and landed in solitary confinement again, for longer stretches of time. He said after experiencing solitary confinement as a child, the isolation left him feeling “damaged.” He wasn’t able to maintain eye contact, spoke slowly, and developed anxiety, depression and migraines.
Panelist Elizer Darris shared similar pain. “You try to sleep the days away. What else are you supposed to do?” he said. “They take everything out of the cells.”
Myon Burrell was 16 when he was sentenced to life in prison, where he was placed in solitary confinement. Burrell’s sentence was commuted in 2020 and he was released after 18 years behind bars.
“I was caged for 23 hours a day,” Burrell said. “And when I was allowed to have my hour, I was allowed to walk around in circles and maybe have a phone call or a shower.”
Known as the Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement, the UN effort was launched in 2021 after the police murder of George Floyd. Its goal is to “further transformative change for racial justice and equality in the context of law enforcement for Africans and people of African descent,” according to a UN press release. The team will examine laws, policies and practices regulating the use of force by law enforcement officials, including how they hold up against international human rights standards.
The UN-appointed team heads next to New York City, for its last stop on the tour. On Friday, members will share their preliminary findings, before presenting a formal report on the national tour to the UN Human Rights Council in the fall.