These College Students Want to Fix the Criminal Justice System

Students across the country are taking a stand to end solitary confinement of juveniles.
A student demonstrator at Princeton sits in a 7' x 9' area representing the space many juveniles are kept in during solitary confinement. (Photo: Courtesy Eva Shang/Student Alliance for Prison Reform)
Apr 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

There are a bunch of new allies in the criminal justice reform movement, and they’re a force to be reckoned with. No, we’re not talking about conservatives like Newt Gingrich or the deep-pocketed Koch brothers. We’re talking about millennials. On Monday, student organizers at nine universities are joining forces to make it clear they care deeply about the movement to reform our country’s criminal justice system. In particular, this week’s campaign will tackle the solitary confinement of juveniles. Organizers hope to catch the attention of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

“We’re going for the big fish,” said Savion Castro, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the campaign director for the Student Alliance for Prison Reform. “It’s not looking like we’ll get a comprehensive federal criminal justice reform bill anytime soon, but the solitary confinement of youth is a practical, achievable goal.”

The campaign addresses kids who are confined in adult jails and prisons, of whom there are approximately 10,000 on any given day. There is no data on the number of children kept in solitary confinement in state or federal facilities. But according to investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, the solitary confinement of youths occurs across the country, especially in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Especially for youths in the criminal justice system, prolonged social and physical isolation has been shown to cause psychological damage and incite physical self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Castro is working alongside student organizers at eight other schools, in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union, to collect signatures and petition the attorney general to end the federal practice of keeping kids in solitary confinement. In spite of numerous campaigns and letters from elected officials over the years, the U.S. government has not formally banned the practice at the federal level.

Policies on the solitary confinement of juveniles vary by state; some have banned the practice entirely or restricted its use. The signature collection this week will be accompanied by events featuring a variety of civil rights and criminal justice experts and practitioners, in hopes of gaining even more momentum and motivating the larger student body at each school to join the cause.

While the alliance has previously held multi-campus vigils to draw attention to solitary confinement, the current campaign’s mobilization effort began in February, when it started working with the ACLU’s Stop Solitary project. Organizers hope to collect at least 200 signatures per campus, which would involve 1,800 students across the country.

Castro said he became involved in the alliance after organizing #BlackLivesMatter events in Madison. He grew up in a civic-minded family and says he was motivated to join the criminal justice reform movement in part because he has friends who have been swept into the system. Madison has a progressive reputation, but, Castro says, “we have some of the highest racial disparities when it comes to incarcerating youth for drug offenses.”

At Boston University, the student alliance’s outreach director, Rosa Otieno, 22, told TakePart it has been harder to inspire students on her campus to act because it is more conservative than other schools in the alliance. Still, Otieno believes an event about mass incarceration she helped organize, to be held on Tuesday evening, will be impactful.

The alliance also includes education officer Kelly McCarron, a student at Suffolk University, who spent seven months behind bars as a teenager. “Everything that makes you a person is stripped away until you are entirely alone,” said McCarron in a letter sent by the ACLU encouraging people to sign the petition to end solitary confinement. According to 19-year-old Eva Shang, a sophomore at Harvard University who serves as the alliance’s executive director, the ACLU’s letter has already garnered more than 10,000 signatures.

“We’re hoping that as the media and broader community see millennials caring about this issue, they understand young people aren’t going to let other young people suffer in solitary confinement,” said Shang. “When 2.2 million Americans are locked up, it’s impossible for young people not to care.”