‘Alone: Teens in Solitary Confinement’ debuts on The I Files

Capping a year of reporting about teens held in solitary confinement, The Center for Investigative Reporting is releasing our documentary “Alone,” which can now be seen on our YouTube channel, The I Files.

This follows stories we’ve done in print, for broadcast on PBS NewsHour, as part of CIR’s new “Reveal” radio show, and in an animation (“The Box”) and graphic novel.

With the publication or broadcast of each version of our reporting, we have seen the issue of teenage solitary confinement become part of a growing national debate.

In May, after more than a year of lobbying by youth advocates, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on states to end the excessive use of solitary confinement on juvenile inmates.

CIR began investigating the solitary confinement of teenagers in prisons, jails and juvenile halls across the U.S. in March 2013. Juvenile justice experts had been pressing the Department of Justice to flex its muscle on behalf of young inmates, to no avail. Holder’s shop declined all interview requests by CIR.

Our reporting quickly zeroed in on Rikers Island, the massive jail complex in New York City, where last year about a quarter of juvenile inmates were held in isolation for 23 hours a day. We spent almost a year requesting to see Rikers’ teen solitary units, but the city’s Department of Correction denied those requests, as did officials at Cook County jail in Chicago and five county jails in Florida. We figured out quickly that juvenile solitary was an often secretive practice, largely unregulated and rampant in most states.

Our investigation early on pointed to thousands of American teenagers held in solitary every day. We wanted to show what that looked like and how it affected kids. We talked to criminal justice experts in California who said virtually every juvenile hall in the state used some form of prolonged isolation.

That’s when we remembered Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall. Covering juvenile justice over the years, Trey Bundy had heard again and again that officials in Santa Cruz had created a model that had reduced the use of isolation so much that corrections officials around the country routinely traveled to California’s Central Coast to see how they did it.

Santa Cruz Chief Probation Officer Fernando Giraldo and Sara Ryan, the hall’s superintendent, allowed us to film inside their facility for five days, unescorted, and talk to anyone we wanted. Our resulting documentary, “Alone,” toggles between New York City and Santa Cruz, where young people tell their own stories of isolation and how the justice system can do better.

Now that Holder has said he wants to end excessive solitary for youth, we’ll keep watching for changes. In the meantime, watch “Alone” and see for yourself what it’s like for kids in isolation and how one facility is trying to keep them out.

“Alone” was produced Daffodil Altan. It was reported by Altan and Trey Bundy, edited by David Ritsher and Andrew Gersh, and filmed by Marco Villalobos. The senior producer was Stephen Talbot. The executive producer was Susanne Reber.

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