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Should Philly keep holding kids in its adult jails?

Citing the harms of solitary confinement, advocates have urged the city to stop holding juveniles in adult jails. Instead, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons plans to move the juvenile males to a unit at Riverside Correctional Facility, the city jail for women.

David Harrington spent time in both adult and juvenile detention centers when he was 17.
David Harrington spent time in both adult and juvenile detention centers when he was 17.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

David Harrington was 17 when he was charged as an adult and held in the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, a city jail.

Then, after eight months — basically his entire sophomore year of high school — a judge sent his case to the juvenile justice system. Legally, he was a kid again.

He was moved to the Juvenile Justice Services Center, where he noticed many differences from his experience at PICC: no more punitive segregation, better access to counselors and programs, and especially the culture among staff. At PICC, he was treated, he thought, like an adult criminal. "The juvenile staff is different," he said. "They were more caring, more helpful. They treat us like kids."

Citing in particular the harm of solitary confinement on the developing adolescent brain, advocates have been urging the city to stop holding juveniles — even those facing adult criminal charges — in adult jails before trial, and to fold them into the secure juvenile population. Instead, they learned recently, the Philadelphia Department of Prisons plans to move the juvenile males to a unit at Riverside Correctional Facility, the city jail for women, as soon as the school year ends.

>>READ MORE: Why can't Philly stop holding kids in solitary confinement?

"For over a year, we've been having a conversation about getting them moved," said Josh Glenn of the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project, founded by people who were once juveniles facing adult charges. "It seemed like we were making progress, and now this happened."

The move comes as the Prisons Department faces a complex housing puzzle. It's reshuffling inmates to close down the decrepit House of Correction, which as of May 30 was finally empty.

Department spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said the move will let the prisons "house inmates in areas that are most appropriate for their custody level, making the best use of the space." Currently, there are 15 teenage boys on a unit built for 100 people.

City officials maintain that mixing these teens with the general juvenile population would be illegal, though it is not clear what law prevents it.

"They would need to be segregated, as we understand current law," First Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy said.

"We're still looking at JJSC, if it's legally and logistically possible," Julie Wertheimer of the city Office of Public Safety said this week. "Right now, even space-wise there isn't room at the JJSC," she said — though the space problem would be tied to the difficulty of creating a separate, segregated unit at the juvenile facility.

District Attorney Larry Krasner said through a spokesman that while he believes that adult jails are no place for juveniles, "it's not a good idea to mix older defendants who have been accused of serious violent crimes with younger offenders who are being held for less serious offenses."

Yet lawyers who've studied the issue said they've been unable to identify a legal basis for segregating the two groups of juveniles in either state or federal law.

One, Joanna Visser Adjoian of the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, said she also believes there's a misconception at play — "that there's some kind of difference between the kids coming from the adult jail and the kids already at the JJSC, that there would be a spike in violence and bullying."

That's not the case, she said, and points out that many youths, if not the majority, are ultimately being sent down to the juvenile system anyway, as Harrington was, and being integrated into the juvenile population.

Kate Burdick, staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, pointed to a 2014 study of a facility where the two groups of juveniles were housed together: It found that the youths facing adult charges had a lower rate of incidents in the institution than those facing juvenile charges.

"The trend nationwide is toward moving youth tried as adults to juvenile facilities. Many large cities like Chicago, New Orleans, and Los Angeles have done this," she said. "Young people were safer, and were able to get the services they needed instead of being subjected to really inappropriate, in some cases very draconian, conditions."

However, Philadelphia's Department of Human Services, which operates the JJSC, indicated there are numerous reasons that the city is not likely to follow suit any time soon.

"Placing direct file juveniles at the [JJSC] who are solely under jurisdiction of the adult court and not pending juvenile court jurisdiction presents legal, programmatic, space, and fiscal challenges that need to be addressed before any changes are made," spokeswoman Heather Keafer said.

Pennsylvania's practice of charging and imprisoning juveniles as adults in nonmurder cases began with a 1995 state law, enacted in response to fears of juvenile crime committed by teen "super predators." The law allowed prosecutors to charge teens as young as 15 in adult criminal court for a range of serious crimes including robbery or assault with a deadly weapon (ranging from a broken BB gun to an AR-15), up to rape or manslaughter. The teens can then seek to have their cases "decertified" to juvenile court.

>>READ MORE: Kids who survived adult jail send a lifeline to those still inside

In Harrington's case, that court adjudicated him delinquent on a charge of conspiracy to commit armed robbery, though he says he was not involved with the crime.

When he was moved to the juvenile facility, he saw what he'd been missing.

At the prison, he saw peers punished with solitary confinement regularly. He said he once spent six days in solitary before a disciplinary hearing officer dismissed the alleged infraction; If he'd been found guilty, it could have been a month or more. At the juvenile facility, segregation was more like a one-day cooling-off period.

In prison, the exercise space was a half-basketball court in "a cage" with barbed wire. At the juvenile facility, there was a football field with a track around it — and no barbed wire on the walls.

Glenn, of the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project, worries the housing conditions for young people at the women's jail could be even more restrictive, noting that when girls are housed there they do not have access to an outdoor recreation area. (Instead, there is a room, he said, with a ceiling and an opening near the top of one wall to let in air.)

Hawes said in an email the teens' educational needs will be met, and the juveniles will "be housed separately (sight and sound) from the adult population" as required by state law and the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Prisons Commissioner Blanche Carney has said the prisons have policies in place to reduce punitive segregation for juveniles.

>>READ MORE: Why is 1 in 10 Philly inmates still confined 'in the hole'?

Other punishments have been introduced, she said. "It's a loss of privileges, a loss of gym time. It's incentive-based. But there are occasions where, if an assault occurs and someone is injured, they need to be separated out."

Still, punitive segregation remains routine. It was imposed on juveniles 70 times between January 2017 and March 2018, for an average of 32 days at a stretch.

Jetson Cruz reported being held in segregation six times while in Philadelphia jail as a 17-year-old, five of them for 30 days or longer.  He described feeling desperate and hopeless. "It hurts," he said, "not to have interaction with anyone."