Solitary confinement in juvenile facilities remains too widespread, is unnecessary and counterproductive, is unfairly applied and is harmful, a new report says.
In addition, experts lament the fact that there’s “a desperate need for better data on disparate treatment within facilities,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center and one of the report’s authors.
In the report, which aims to bridge the information gap, the center presents raw testimony from people who have experienced solitary, data on frequency and length of confinement, and solution-oriented litigation and policy strategies.
Karen U. Lindell, staff attorney at the center and another co-author, hopes that individual defenders, parents and people who run correctional institutions will find concrete tools and tactics, recent case law and policy examples in the report to help them limit and eliminate solitary confinement.
Litigation strategies include arguing for child-specific constitutional standards and challenging the failure to provide a meaningful education while ensuring post-disposition representation. Visiting local facilities and working with advocates and parents is also recommended to broaden the potential for outreach and education. The report will be the center of a congressional briefing this afternoon.
“This is a problem that can be solved,” Feierman said.
Almost half of juvenile facilities report that they isolate youth for more than four hours to control behavior. That time ranges from hours to months on end. Basic necessities such as mattresses, sheets, showers and utensils for eating plus mental health treatment are not guaranteed in solitary, let alone niceties such as outdoor time, books or writing materials.
“This is something that if I did it to my own children it would be called child abuse,” she said.
Reasons reported for use of solitary confinement range from understaffing and administrative convenience to discipline and self-harm prevention. Some subsets of the population are more likely to get put into isolation. Youth identifying as LGBTQ are at “heightened risk” of being put into solitary, as are youth of color and youth with disabilities, the report said.
Youth can be detained from 22 to 23 hours a day, with their only human contact the glimpse of a hand pushing meals through the door slat or the guard escorting you to the shower. For young people with ever-developing minds, this can have perverse effects on their mental health and neurological development.
“Solitary has affected me in ways I have never known,” said Eddie Ellis, founder of One by 1. He was put into solitary confinement at 15. His time there, combined, was 10 years.
“I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD and I’ve had doctors help me out,” he said. “But again, I had an anxiety attack just the other day.”
His memories and those of other youth about their time in solitary support the report’s medical findings: Studies link solitary confinement with suicidal thoughts, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia and psychosis.
The report paints a grim picture of a widespread yet under-researched practice that not only differs by facility and region, but is also extremely covert — many things behind those isolation chamber walls never escape them.
“It’s very secretive, and they don’t talk to parents about the conditions their kids are under,” said the mother of a young man held in solitary, quoted in the report. Even lawyers are left out of the loop — two-thirds of survey respondents indicated that youth never receive a hearing before being placed in solitary.
The report suggests solitary in youth facilities could be put to an end, should litigators, policymakers and communities continue to unite following the lead of former President Barack Obama, who banned the use of solitary confinement for youth in federal prisons in 2016.
“It was a huge thing for President Barack Obama to come out and target juvenile solitary confinement like that,” Lindell said. “The number of children in federal prison is very small, but it sends a very powerful message to states — this isn't something that's necessary, this is something people are moving away from.”
Lindell pointed to Ohio and Massachusetts as states that have reduced their use of solitary confinement. Between 2014 and 2015 Ohio lessened its use by 88.6 percent, resulting in rates of violence dropping by 20 percent in the same timeframe. Its Department of Youth Services made major shifts in visitation hours and added chats with family via webcam calls, and programming such as sports, life skills classes, and movie nights in order to “decrease reliance on solitary confinement.”
Massachusetts' average confinement time is less than an hour. They have worked to educate their staff on de-escalation tactics and adolescent development training. Like Ohio, Massachusetts has employed evidence-based therapeutic models to shift their culture from a punitive to rehabilitative.
“Any time you can get states to understand that solitary is hurting people, it’s a win,” Ellis said.
The report closes with recommendations for reform to end this practice nationally. It encourages reformists not to settle for “altering” or “ameliorating” solitary conditions “for any reason other than to prevent immediate harm, with clear limits on its use even under emergency circumstances.”
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Back in the fall of 2011, kids bullied Alycin Mabry so severely that her mom decided to home school the Atlanta 14-year-old. At the time, her mom Annise Mabry saw homeschooling as the shining answer the family needed.
But today, Mabry says, it’s clear that their struggle was far from over.
“Maybe two or three months into the online school, Ali started to become more and more isolated,” Mabry said. “I just couldn’t get her out of the room. It just started spiraling. … Finally, my breaking point was when she stopped brushing her teeth, taking showers and I couldn’t even see her face for her hair.”
Mabry, suffering from an autoimmune disease and also struggling to provide for her second child, 8-year-old Niles who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, felt there was no way for her and her family to overcome their issues.
Little did they know, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) was considering their story for its new series, “Trouble Next Door,” now airing on Monday nights. The series focuses on helping families in crisis by implementing the very specific community based method of getting their neighbors involved.
“We really wanted to address bullying and [the Mabry’s] story really stood out,” said the series’ executive producer, Domini Hofmann. “We wanted to be able to help these families with this method of working with neighbors. And it was clear that Alicyn needed to just get out of her room. She needed interaction with other people. And, Annise was overwhelmed.”
When the show began shooting last May, it drove the Mabry family to put everything on the table and let their next-door neighbors fully into their lives and their struggles. And, although the process of being completely transparent was difficult, Mabry feels that it saved her family.
As seen during the episode, by opening up and sharing their story with their neighborhood, things began to change in a positive manner. Alicyn even gained an educational opportunity when she landed a scholarship at the East Minster private school, in Conyers, Ga.
“Before the show, I had a very tiny community, which didn’t include my neighbors. I would wave at them, but I didn’t know who they were,” Mabry explained. Now, months after the cameras left, Mabry still talks to her neighbor’s daily and they continue to be an immediate source of help when she needs.
Alicyn continues to deal with the trauma she suffered when she was bullied at her previous school. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder last October.
“I remember sitting there thinking, ‘so the child that I sent to that school in 2009, I’ll never see that little girl again,’” Mabry said. “I had to grieve for that, but I also had to celebrate that now we know what’s wrong. And now we have not only a neighborhood community supporting us, but also a school community.”
With this series, OWN wants to illustrate how getting to know the next-door neighbors can create positive change.
“We want people to look at themselves and their relationship with their neighbors, and see how things could be different,” Hofmann said.
And although her family continues to have ups and downs, Mabry feels that creating a relationship with her community was the answer she desperately needed.
“[Community based methods] work.” said Mabry. “… The thing about having neighborhood support like this on this level is that I’m in their neighborhood. So whatever happens to me happens to them. There’s more of a vested interest to take care of the person next door because this is somebody that you’re going to see.”
The Mabry family will be featured on OWN’s new docu-series “Trouble Next Door” airing Monday, January 21 at 10 p.m. Eastern/Pacific.
Photo courtesy of OWN.
The girl is maybe 15 years old? She is standing in the back of a building, or maybe it’s an alley way. She has her arms wrapped around her body and her teeth are chattering. When the officer approaches and tells her to leave the alley way she shakes her head and refuses. The officer moves in closer and reiterates his order to leave. Suddenly the girl is lunging at him, screaming, “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me! Get away from me!” She is pushing her hands out at him, then pointing her finger at the officer, ordering him to keep his distance. We hear the officer say, “Whoa, hold on there. You listen to me young lady, I’ll arrest your ass if you don’t settle down. You want that? You want to go to jail?”
Officers watching this scene unfold during Strategies for Youth trainings often express their discomfort by laughing at the girl’s sudden, and seemingly unprovoked transformation into an accuser. “She’s acting like my wife,” one will say and the ensuing chuckles help dissolve the tension in the classroom.
When asked to proffer a diagnosis of what mental health problem the girl is experiencing, the male officers typically call out, “Psychotic,” “Schizophrenic,” “Bipolar,” or they just shake their heads. When asked, what they would do with a girl behaving like this, most officers express the belief that they would arrest her for disorderly conduct, at the very least.
If there are any women officers in the room, they generally won’t volunteer their diagnosis. But when asked, they’ll uniformly say, “She has PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]” or they’ll speculate, “The girl’s probably been raped.”
Since 2000, understanding trauma and PTSD has become big business. There is trauma therapy. Trauma histories are used to mitigate punishment. There are trauma-sensitive schools.
We now know the extent of damage and disorder trauma inflicts on a child and a teen’s brain, how it bathes the brain in an acid bath of cortisol that literally corrodes the brain, that children’s nervous systems are basically re-wired—and not for the better. We know that the toll of hyper-vigilance from being on-guard in anticipation of another trauma leaves a legacy of physical diseases from asthma to depression to heart problems that endure long into adulthood.
Research also has told us that it doesn’t matter whether youth have experienced trauma first hand, or simply witnessed it at home or in their neighborhoods. Violence and death seen or heard cause intrusive thoughts, malfunctioning short-term memory and an inability to concentrate or sit still, weakening their connection to school.
Children and youth exposed to trauma organize their world according to what Giovanni Liotti calls the “triangle of trauma.” The 3 players in that dynamic are the victim, the abuser, and the rescuer. For the most traumatized youth, each interaction requires assigning each person into one of those roles.
And we know that children and teens living in cities, where police presence is greatest, are the youth most chronically exposed to trauma. They walk past shrines to their dead peers, hear events discussed in detail and rehashed and invoked and threatened in school. And they see it in the nation’s media and nightly news.
Yet, somehow, in 2011, most police interacting with youth are not trained to recognize, much less interact with a child or a teen in the throes of a traumatic experience or one who has experienced trauma.
How is that possible?
One reason is that police are not trained in child or adolescent development or psychology. The preliminary results of an SFY review of state police curriculum show that most state police officer standards and training (POST) programs do not include these subjects.
This lack of awareness puts youth and police at risk.
Police must understand how traumatized youth think and anticipate their responses for several reasons.
First, it’s important that officers understand that their presence as an authority figure is sufficient to make a traumatized youth become unhinged and lose control of their ability to regulate their behavior in what would appear to be a normal, rational manner. While many officers can understand that their comrades back from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan will jump and respond aggressively to loud noises like cars backfiring, it’s important for officers to apply that understanding to the youth they deal with, especially in communities with high rates of violence.
Second, when youth who have been traumatized become agitated in their presence, it’s important that officers not assume that traumatized youths’ behavior is intentional. Youth who have been chronically exposed to and/or actively traumatized are usually unable to regulate their emotions and anxiety. They engage in hyper-vigilant, protective conduct to ward off more trauma. The two most frequent protective responses are fight and flight. And these are exactly the behaviors that police believe, respectively, require control and provoke suspicion.
Third, officers should be on guard for traumatized youth who unconsciously assign them the role of abused, abuser or rescuer and pull them into that role.
Fourth, officers not trained to recognize the signs of a traumatized youth and see a youth’s hyper vigilance, extreme defensiveness, as intentional and oppositional often perceive these behaviors to reflect guilt that warrants a strong, physical assertion of authority and power. And for officers suffering from PTSD, it may lead to reflexive defensive responses. Too often officers’ chosen or reactive responses lead to escalation of youth and officer reactions, which can result in use of force and arrest.
It’s time we connect the dots: the gap in achievement, in positive interactions, in healthy communities owes a lot to trauma. As long as we continue to fail to recognize its implications, we can assume we will perpetuate it.
This piece originally appeared in the Youth Transition Funders Group blog.