James Stewart, a 17-year-old from Denver who committed suicide while in solitary confinement, had never been to jail before August of 2008. That was when, under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, Stewart had gotten into a head-on car collision, killing a 32-year-old man.
Because of the severity of his crime, Stewart was charged with vehicular homicide — and charged as an adult. His family couldn’t make bail, so Stewart was placed in the Denver County Jail while he awaited his sentence.
There was just one problem: Since he was a minor, Stewart was ordered to be put in protective custody, separate from the adult prisoners— and the best protection the jail had to offer was solitary confinement.
Weeks later, the psychological impact was too much. After a brief reprieve from solitary to be in a shared cell with another juvenile offender, Stewart was sent back to isolation after a minor argument with his cellmate. According to his older sister, Nicole Miera, Stewart took his own life after less than 10 minutes of being back in what inmates called “the hole.”
“It was stated that that when he got in there, he was pretty upset,” Miera told NBC’s Ted Koppel, her eyes filling with tears. “He had taken a sheet and he had wrapped around his neck and just twisted until he couldn’t twist anymore.”
Stewart was one of many juveniles who are in adult jails and prisons across America. Not all of their stories end as tragically as his, but the increasingly blurry line between juvenile offenders and adult correctional facilities have made many wonder if better solutions are needed for this growing population.
For each of the past five years, roughly 100,000 juveniles have been held in adult jails and prisons, according to data from the Department of Justice.
Defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Equal Justice Initiative, told NBC these youths are getting unfairly harsh treatment for the crimes they commit.
“Ninety-one percent of the children who are serving time in adult jails and prisons are serving time in jails and prisons for crimes that are not murder, crimes that are not sex crimes,” he said. “Solitary confinement is pretty horrible for anybody, but it’s especially horrible for a child. It is psychological torture.”
Credit -Elizabeth Chuck, NBC News, and Deirdre Cohen and Sarah Koch, Rock Center