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The Lost Boys

What happens when you put juvenile prisoners in an adult isolation lockup?

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 6:27 AM EDT

It was only after I had been visiting the SHU for a while that I began to see things differently. At first, I thought the changes in my students' behavior were the result of the calmer, cleaner environment.

But more and more I realized that it was, in fact, the result of their total isolation. They listened, they studied my face, they begged me to return, and they watched me leave because they were hungry—for words, sounds, the sight of people—any stimulation that broke their solitude.

In the months that followed, the SHU began to show this underbelly of deprivation. Conditions deteriorated. The walls got scuffed and nicked where inmates struggled against the emergency response teams carrying them in. Windows grew smeared from hands and faces pressed against the glass.

They were dirty. Even the guys who were usually fastidious about grooming became sloppy and disheveled.

Gradually, the inmates stopped making their beds. They piled clothes on the floor. They left books and papers wherever they dropped. Now when I visited after class, some of my students would be sleeping. They'd bury themselves under the covers, their heads wrapped up in towels for warmth and to shut out the light.

If I was able to wake them, calling through the tray slot, they'd grumble and splutter to be left alone. Once they knew it was me and got up, they were still polite and appreciative, but they would stare, stunned and bewildered—wondering if I was real or just part of some dream.

And they were dirty. Even the guys who were usually fastidious about grooming became sloppy and disheveled. Like Pinto, who used to arrive to class every day scrubbed, shaved, and smelling of Old Spice. His county oranges would be pressed, and his hair clipped short and brushed to a black lacquer.

But in the SHU, his eyes grew puffy and crusted from endless hours of sleep. His face was covered with a patchy, scruffy beard, and his hair was knotted and woolly. When he leaned down to talk to me his breath was sour, and the odor of his unwashed clothes and body rose out of the metal opening like a malevolent genie.

Despite the modern air system, that same foul, stale smell of soiled sheets, and unwashed armpits and assholes, soon began to pervade the whole unit. It hit you as soon as you walked in. But that wasn't the only thing that hit you when you left the sally port.

There was also the noise. Although many of the men had turned day into night, those who weren't sleeping would be screaming. With typical jailhouse ingenuity, SHU inmates had discovered that they could communicate if they went out to their rec decks, plastered themselves against the wire mesh, and shrieked at the top of their lungs.

It might've been hard to distinguish the words of their fellow inmates, but that didn't matter. One human was still connecting to someone like him, someone living with the same sense of loss and isolation. And the department of corrections couldn't do a damn thing to stop it.

Eventually, inevitably, the grand, open feel of the SHU became as closed and claustrophobic as the rest of the jail.

Officer Saner wasn't far behind in his deterioration. He soon realized that once the emergency response people put an inmate in the cell, he was the gatekeeper for all of that man's requests. All he had to do was push a button—or simply ignore the inmates' pleas.

His helpful attitude toward me vanished. He started depriving me of teaching materials that he'd previously allowed through, claiming that they were contraband; or he would insist that the school provide supplies that the SHU had furnished before.

It got to the point where Saner barely acknowledged my presence. Protected by his bank of controls and monitors, he didn't even bother to look up from the motorcycle magazine he was reading. Instead, he'd let me stand there for a minute or two.

Then he'd point to the top of the desk panel for me to leave the work, and flick his fingers, dismissing me. Or he'd tell me to come back at a "better time," when he wasn't so busy.

With each refusal, he invoked safety and security issues. "All I can recommend is that you talk to my superiors if there's a problem. Sir," he would snicker, knowing that none of us civilians were stupid enough to do something like that if we ever wanted to get any business done in the SHU.

Eventually, inevitably, the grand, open feel of the SHU became as closed and claustrophobic as the rest of the jail. The tours ceased, and the inquiring visitors became less frequent.

They slept their days into night. They tried to shout and scream their loneliness away.

The rutted field around the facility filled up with weeds and tattered plastic bags. There was no longer talk about bringing in truckloads of topsoil and seeding it with grass, or maybe planting a few flowering trees. Warden Root was too busy. He was knee-deep in blueprints and price estimates, iron girders and concrete frames, managing the county's next construction project.

Slowly, the SHU filled up with men, boys, old-timers, and fresh new jacks—scared and pissed as hell. They slept their days into night. They tried to shout and scream their loneliness away. They abandoned their last meager vestiges of humanity to all that concrete, glass, steel, and technology. All while Officer Saner leafed through one more motorcycle magazine, or did one more word search, before flipping the intercom switch to listen to one more goddamn complaint—a complaint he had no intention of doing anything about.

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