By Timothy Williams
August 15, 2015
HATTIESBURG, Miss. — The prisoner spent a fitful August night trying to tune out the howls and moans of inmates in adjoining cells. He did not stir from his thin sleep mat until well after 1 p.m. A breakfast of cold grits waited in a slot in the reinforced steel door.
It was a day like many others he had spent at the Forrest County Jail for much of the past two years — awaiting trial on armed robbery charges, but held in a cell alone for more than 23 hours each day.
The prisoner, Ke’jorium McKnight, is 16 years old. He was kept in solitary confinement not for behavioral reasons or as punishment but because he is being tried as an adult. Under Mississippi law, that means he must be held in an adult jail. And federal law requires that if he is held in an adult jail, he must be kept separate from other inmates, for his own protection.
“I’m always feeling down,” he said in a brief interview at the jail on Aug. 6. “I’m in extreme isolation, and I don’t understand why they would do this to me.”
A week after that meeting with this reporter, Ke’jorium was moved to another wing of the jail, where he is being held with three or four other juveniles, his mother, Feletha Watson, said in an interview on Friday after she met with prosecutors.
Solitary confinement has long been a feature of the nation’s criminal justice system, either to punish or protect inmates, with about 75,000 state and federal prisoners in solitary across the country. Ke’jorium, though, is emblematic of a more select and far less visible group of prisoners in solitary — children or teenagers in isolation in adult jails for their own safety.
“Juveniles are more vulnerable to abuse by adults, including sexual abuse, and they have rights to special protections,” said Ian M. Kysel, an adjunct professor and a fellow at the Human Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. “In some places that might mean putting them in juvenile facilities.”
Putting juveniles in solitary, though, brings its own complications. Solitary confinement is increasingly being questioned — by mental health officials, criminologists and, most recently, President Obama. But experts say its effects on juveniles can be particularly damaging because their minds and bodies are still developing, putting them at greater risk of psychological harm and leading to depression and other mental health problems. In 2012, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry called foran end to the practice.
“There is plenty of research showing that solitary causes far more harm to kids than to their adult counterparts,” said Dr. Louis J. Kraus, the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Dr. Kraus specifically mentioned solitary’s link to post-traumatic stress disorder. “It induces anxiety, and it increases the risk of suicide,” he added. “It is barbaric. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Dr. Kraus said that while the long-term mental health effects of solitary on juveniles were not well documented, isolating children is almost certain to deepen existing psychological problems.
Ke’jorium, in Mississippi, is among the more than 60 percent of juveniles who have been arrested who have some form of mental illness. Before he was 10, doctors diagnosed bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, Ms. Watson, his mother, said, and when he was 4, he set a fire that destroyed the family’s house.
A bill introduced in the United States Senate this month by Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, and Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, among others, would prohibit almost all solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal system.
Across the country, teenagers and children may be kept in solitary in either juvenile or adult jails and prisons. As many as 17,000 youths are held in isolation in juvenile jails nationwide, the Justice Department says, most for punishment for a rule violation or because they are on suicide watch.
In adult jails, these youths, like Ke’jorium, are almost always held separately for their protection. There is no official count. Experts say the figure could range from dozens to thousands.
More than 20 states either require or allow teenagers charged as adults to be put in adult jails while awaiting trial.
Ke’jorium McKnight grew up in Natchez and Hattiesburg, Miss. Because of his mental health issues, he has been institutionalized repeatedly since he was 5 and has been prescribed various medications, Ms. Watson said. At age 13, he wrote his own obituary.
“He’s actually a good kid inside — he just can’t control his impulses,” Ms. Watson, 37, said in an interview in the family’s home.
In May 2013, when he was 14, he was charged with the armed robbery of a store in Hattiesburg. The police said Ke’jorium, wearing a bandanna over the lower part of his face, pointed a BB gun at the store clerk and stole a video game console and $155. He was arrested nearby while hiding under a pile of leaves, the police said.
The charges against him carry a maximum sentence of life in prison plus 75 years. With neither a lawyer nor his mother present, he and his mother said, he signed a confession and was placed in solitary in Forrest County Jail. He spent a few weeks there until his mother, who works in health care, could make the $6,000 bond for his release.
Four months later, he was arrested in connection with three house burglaries in which video games were stolen. Again, he signed a confession — this time after he asked for a lawyer, his mother said.
“They told him if he signed it, he could go home,” Ms. Watson said. The prosecutor declined to comment, and the police did not return phone calls.
He was placed in solitary. He was released on bond this May and placed in a residential treatment center, but soon ran away. His bond was revoked, and he was put back into solitary in Forrest County in June.
Ke’jorium has grown nearly six inches, Ms. Watson said, and is now six feet tall and 160 pounds. The 8-by-8-foot cell where he spent most of the last two years, he said, was large enough only for a sink, a toilet and a bed, which was a thin mat on the concrete floor. There was no window.
A surveillance camera hung above the toilet.
He stayed inside the cell for more than 23 hours a day — the standard for juvenile solitary. It was so cold, he said in the interview, that he shivered for much of the day.
He had no radio or television, and the only book he was permitted was the Bible. He said he thought about killing himself. He and his mother said that he had received his medication only sporadically and that she recently stopped being able to afford it.
“My mind is playing tricks on me,” he said, days before he was transferred. “I am very depressed.”
He said adults who seemed to have mental problems were held in adjoining cells — usually for only days at a time. One man in the next cell tried to hang himself, he said.
“Sometimes, they put someone crazy in the cell next to me and it makes me crazy,” he said.
Billy McGee, the county sheriff, who supervises the jail, did not return several phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Since Thursday, when Ke’jorium was moved out of solitary, his situation has been very different. He shares a cell with another juvenile, and he can walk around the cellblock and watch television, according to his mother. He has more frequent access to a telephone and has already spoken with her a couple of times. He was allowed to get a haircut.
“He’s much happier now,” his mother said.
But he is still awaiting trial.
In January, more than a year after Ke’jorium’s initial arrest, the public defender filed a motion to dismiss the case, citing the lack of a speedy trial. The motion was denied.
In the spring, documents and the court record show, his public defender encouraged him to plead guilty to armed robbery in exchange for a 10- to 20-year sentence — a way to avoid life in prison. Ms. Watson said she was unaware her son had made a plea deal until weeks later. She has since persuaded him to rescind it.
Patricia Burchell, the district attorney, and Judge Robert B. Helfrich of the County Circuit Court, declined requests for interviews.
During a court appearance in Hattiesburg recently, Ke’jorium was shackled at the wrists and ankles and escorted by a pair of sheriff’s deputies. Wearing a red-and-white striped jumpsuit with “Forrest County Inmate” stamped in block letters on the back, he looked around as if confused.
The judge asked Ke’jorium about the scrapped plea deal and if he wanted to go to trial. Ke’jorium said he did.
Benjamin Thornton, his third public defender, told the judge that he had recommended the deal to Ke’jorium.
The judge then questioned Ms. Watson. “It was clear he didn’t understand what was going on,” she told him.
Mr. Thornton told Ms. Watson that he believed her son had understood the plea agreement because he had counted the years he would spend in prison on his fingers to determine how old he would be when he was released.
Elizabeth Porter, the county’s chief public defender, said she was not able to discuss the specifics of the case. She acknowledged that her office had not always kept Ms. Watson informed because Ke’jorium is being tried as an adult.
“If the client doesn’t communicate what is happening to his mother, that is his prerogative,” she said.