Former inmates campaign to end solitary confinement

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It’s about 8:30 pm on a recent Monday and Diwane Smith is hunched over a laptop writing a letter. It’s a thank you letter of sorts to California senator Mark Leno for his support of SB 124, a bill to limit the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities.

Smith’s letter reads: “Dear Senator Leno, Thank you for supporting senate bill 124 which is currently moving through the CA state Legislature. I am a youth organizer from Youth Justice Coalition and a former resident of Los Padrinos juvenile correctional facility who has experienced solitary confinement. I know how devastating isolation is…”

In 2005, Smith got into a fight at school. At the time he was on probation for a petty theft charge so he was sentenced to a six months in Los Padrinos juvenile hall and an additional six months in a group home.

“I remember being in my room one night in Los Padrinos frustrated about why I was locked up and no matter how much I tried I wouldn’t be able to leave this 5 by 10 brick room,” Smith recalls. “As my mind started to race with thoughts like, ‘How long would they leave me in here? Does anyone care how I feel? What am I missing out on during this time in lockup?’ Before I could get another thought out I screamed at the top of my lungs during the time us inmates were supposed to be in bed. Before I could finish my outcry I heard others screaming out with same agony in their voice that I had in mine.”

Smith says this moment, when everyone on the block started yelling was the first time he felt like he had control of his life while at the detention center. The moment was cut short when the lights came on, the staff came to his cell and told him to put his shoes on because he was going to The Box, solitary confinement. He was 14 years old at the time.

Smith is now an organizer for Youth Justice Coalition, the nonprofit that helped organize this letter writing campaign. Several former inmates from juvenile halls and state and Federal prison are spread out around the room tapping away on laptops. They are hoping to gather 1,000 letters in support of SB 124 by the end of May.

Senator Leno cites Research published by the Department of Justice which found that “more than 50% of the suicides of children detained in juvenile facilities occurred while young people were isolated alone in their rooms, and that more than 60% of young people who committed suicide had a history of being held in isolation.”