Arkansas Kids in Isolation: Locked Away in Alexander
This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.
In April, a 15-year-old boy housed at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center spent the entire day alone in a small cell. Michael (the names of juveniles in this story have been changed to protect their anonymity) was put in a hold by a guard and taken out of his classroom at the facility’s school. As he repeatedly said, “I am not resisting” and “no aggression” — a phrase used at AJATC to indicate compliance — Michael was brought across campus to Building 19.
Once used as a maximum-security facility to house a program for serious juvenile offenders, part of Building 19 is now used to temporarily segregate youths from the regular population at AJATC, in some cases confining them in single-cell units. Michael was immediately locked in one of these units, empty other than a metal bed with a mat on it and a wool comforter. Typically, he said, youths confined to a cell in Building 19 may only be let out to use the bathroom. This time, he was not let out at all from around noon until nighttime, when he was taken back to his regular living quarters.
“I was in my cell the whole time,” he said. “I was calling the staff’s name and they wouldn’t let me out. I had to pee in my dinner tray after I got done eating.”
Rite of Passage, the Nevada-based, for-profit company that contracts with the state to run the facility, declined to respond to specific stories like Michael’s, citing privacy concerns.
AJATC, located near Alexander, houses more than 100 youths. It is the largest of eight juvenile lockup facilities in the state overseen by the Division of Youth Services, part of the Arkansas Department of Human Services. These facilities, known as treatment centers, are intended to provide therapy and rehabilitation rather than being punitive, and are required to provide education that meets state standards. AJATC has a long history of trouble, including mistreatment of children in its care. When Rite of Passage was brought in as a new contractor in 2016, it promised a fresh start, telling the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, “We’re not interested in running jailhouses. We’re interested in running schoolhouses.”
According to multiple youths, former staffers and others, confining a youth alone in a cell in Building 19 or in another room on campus has been regularly used at AJATC as a disciplinary response to nonviolent misbehavior in class, as well as for more serious misconduct, with the youth sometimes staying there for much of the day. If a youth is deemed to be a danger, the practice is sometimes used for a period of multiple days. According to Rite of Passage, the facility ended the practice of room confinement as a response to classroom misbehavior in June. Under current policy, the company’s attorneys said, room confinement is only used for certain major infractions, for a maximum of 72 hours. They said that youths in room confinement still have access to services such as education and therapy.
In a letter in August to Division of Youth Services director Betty Guhman, Scott Tanner, the state juvenile ombudsman at the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, raised alarms about the practice and oversight of isolation in the state’s juvenile lockup facilities. “These practices must be governed by strong policy and effective monitoring,” Tanner wrote. “We, as a state, are failing at both.” Tanner cited research that for juveniles, “isolation … actually has negative public safety consequences, does not reduce violence and likely increases recidivism.”
“It’s a very risky, dangerous practice,” said Jennifer Lutz, an attorney for the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington, D.C., and the campaign manager for Stop Solitary for Kids, a partnership between four national juvenile justice reform organizations. The research, Lutz said, shows that putting youths in such situations can cause serious psychological and emotional harm, exacerbate mental illness or post-traumatic stress responses and increase risk of self-harm. She pointed to federal data published by the U.S. Department of Justice that found that more than half of suicides in juvenile facilities occur while youths are isolated alone in a room, and more than 60 percent of youths who commit suicide in custody had a history of being subjected to the practice. There is no evidence, Lutz said, that isolation improves the safety and security of juvenile lockup institutions, and may actually increase violent behavior.
Tanner’s letter follows months of communication with the DYS and Rite of Passage staff in which he expressed concerns about the use of room confinement at AJATC. In emails, Tanner described the practice as “essentially social isolation.” The communications were acquired from the Public Defender Commission by a Freedom of Information Act request; Tanner declined to comment for this story.
Referencing one youth with severe behavioral problems, Tanner wrote, “Finding a way to effectively engage him is key. Keeping him locked in a room is only adding fuel to his rage.” Tanner repeatedly expressed the concern that Rite of Passage’s internal policies were not addressing the practices he had witnessed. “There is nothing in this policy that adequately describes what I have observed of youth being placed in a locked unit, in a single room cell behind a locked door away from the general milieu,” he wrote.
An email Tanner sent in August shows that he attempted to access individual records of youths he had seen confined in Building 19 during recent visits to the facility — two of them for longer than 72 hours — to assess how Building 19 was functioning in practice, including whether youths sent there were being provided appropriate education and therapy.
Tanner found few answers, the correspondence indicates. The records were months out of date or nonexistent. (Tanner wrote that these gaps in the records “caused concern beyond my initial scope of inquiry.”) There was no information about what caused youths to be sent to Building 19, the amount of time they spent in room confinement or what services were provided to them. In some cases, despite the fact that these youths were assigned disciplinary room confinement in July, the most recent incident report on file was in May; in other cases, there was no incident report at all. One appeared to have therapist progress notes before and after the period of confinement, but none during. Another, identified as a student with special education needs, only had a note indicating that the student was not present in group therapy due to being placed in Building 19.
Although Rite of Passage operates AJATC, the DYS is ultimately responsible for the youths at the facility. DYS facilities abide by a protocol in accordance with the American Correctional Association, but the division itself does not currently have an official policy on room confinement; a policy was drafted more than two years ago, but it has never been promulgated.
In his letter to Guhman, Tanner called for data tracking of room confinement — in line with national standards for juvenile justice — to ensure best practices around the use of isolation and enable more intensive monitoring and review. Currently, DYS does not track aggregate data on room confinement and was unable to provide information about how often the practice is used at AJATC or other locations. Any situation that results in room confinement should be noted narratively on an incident report sent to the DYS, but the practice itself is not tracked in the agency’s data system.
“The lack of data collected by DYS has been an ongoing issue,” said Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that does regular observations at the juvenile lockups.
“We are having a number of conversations about changes that should happen within the Division of Youth Services and reviewing all policies, and that may be among changes we make,” said Amy Webb, chief communications officer at the Department of Human Services. “But because there is not a separate tracking report, that does not mean that we don’t monitor this. All incident reports are reviewed by our staff.”
Thus far in 2017, DYS staff have yet to identify a single improper use of room confinement requiring further investigation or review.
The practice of confining someone alone to a cell or room has many names — isolation, room confinement, segregation, seclusion, restrictive housing, solitary confinement — and each term can have varying definitions.
“One of the major problems with advocacy in this area is there isn’t one single nationally accepted definition of solitary confinement,” Lutz said. “In the juvenile justice system, that term sets off alarm bells for the folks who work in facilities and run those agencies because they’re concerned that it’s associated with harsher adult practices.” Stop Solitary for Kids defines solitary confinement as “involuntary placement of a youth alone in a cell, room, or other area for any reason other than as a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate physical harm.”
Rite of Passage objected to terms such as “isolation,” preferring the phrase “room time.” The company also objected to referring to a cell in which a youth is confined alone as a “solitary” room. By email, Rite of Passage’s legal counsel wrote, “solitary confinement and isolation are not practices used by RoP in its operations at AJATC. … There are serious and negative connotations attached to both of those terms, none of which apply to RoP’s treatment of the youth in its care.” While youth are sometimes locked alone in a cell in Building 19, Rite of Passage noted that staffers and other youths would be present in the building. A youth confined in Building 19 would still have access to normal programing, such as education, recreation and therapy, the company said. Asked specifically what that programming would entail in the context of room confinement, Rite of Passage did not respond.
“The purpose of the removal and placement of the youth in Building 19 is not to isolate them, but to change their environment based upon clinical or behavioral program needs,” Rite of Passage attorneys wrote in an email. They described Building 19 as “a dorm-like setting but with enhanced staffing.”
Some youths housed at AJATC have a different view. “It’s like the prison,” said Jason, another 15-year-old resident. Both Jason and Michael, the teenager put in a cell in April, said they had been confined in a cell that had blood and urine clearly visible on the floor and wall.
“It’s everywhere,” Jason said. “It was just disgusting in there.” When the boys complained, they were moved to another cell, but they said that nothing was immediately done to clean up the problem cell. Jason said that if he winds up in a cell in Building 19, he just tries to sleep. “There ain’t nothing else to do,” he said.
Michael said that in March, over a period of two weeks, he spent at least five hours a day confined to a cell in Building 19 as punishment for refusing to have his hair cut. He was exploring Islam and associated letting his hair grow out with his interest in the faith. On school days, he said, he would be brought to the cell after classes, from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; on weekends, he would be confined to the cell all day. Although Rite of Passage declined to comment on specific stories, it disputed that a youth would ever have been subjected to room confinement for refusing a haircut.
The boys said that over the past year, the most common use of room confinement came in response to classroom misbehavior (unless a more serious infraction is involved, that practice has now been discontinued after a policy change in June, according to Rite of Passage). Students who were seriously disruptive in class might be sent to an in-school suspension classroom. If they continued to misbehave in ISS, they could be sent to Building 19, where they could be confined to a cell. Rite of Passage said that aggregate data on the number of times room confinement was used in response to such scenarios was not available.
In a telephone interview in May, Michael Cantrell, executive director of the southeastern region for Rite of Passage, acknowledged this practice, which he described as a last resort, but denied that the purpose was punitive. He described it as an effort to remove kids from an audience. “I wouldn’t call it punishment. That’s draconian,” he said. “It’s a space that kids can go for an hour, two hours, chill out, relax, get themselves together and get back to class.”
However, a pair of therapists who left their positions at AJATC earlier this year (before the June policy change), said that room confinement was used as a standard punishment for acting up in class, and that once a student was taken to Building 19, he would generally not return for the rest of the school day.
“They absolutely used it as a punitive measure,” one therapist said. “If you piss off staff members or act a fool in school, you go to Building 19. If you get kicked out of class, out of ISS, you go directly to Building 19 and you sit in a cell all day. You don’t really come out except to go to the bathroom. Then whenever school is over, group [therapy] is over, everything is done, then you go back to your cottage [the regular living quarters] and you would typically have early bedtime. They’ll bring you dinner to your room but you’ll stay in your room the rest of the night.”
Sometimes, the former AJATC therapists said, guards would pull the bed mat out of the cell in Building 19 so that youths only have the metal frame of the cot to sit or lie on. The therapists said that, during their time working for Rite of Passage, Building 19 was overused. “If you have a kid who is being extremely aggressive and violent, then to calm down is not necessarily a bad thing,” one said. “I think that is excessive when you don’t allow the kid to recover, when they can’t go back to school for the rest of the day. If this happens at 8 o’clock in the morning, you’re SOL.”
As with the statements made by the youths above, Rite of Passage, through its legal counsel, declined to respond directly to any specific allegations. “Those who work from the standpoint of misinformation, rumors and inadequate information harm the process and ability to keep all safe,” the company’s attorneys wrote.
Removing a youth from the classroom to confine him in Building 19 or elsewhere could create a federal legal issue under the Individuals with Disabilities Act if he has a disability, Masseau said. “If [the misbehavior] is a manifestation of disabilities, you can’t just change his placement because he’s acting up. You need to put in behavior supports or modify his programming in whatever way allows the child to obtain their free and appropriate public education.”
“If a youth has a disability the Special Ed department will ensure his or her needs are met, and may include the use of services within Building 19,” Rite of Passage attorneys stated.
Whatever name it goes by, youth advocates argue that room confinement should be strictly limited in juvenile facilities, and even short periods of confinement can be counterproductive and harmful for children. “It has a detrimental effect on a youth’s treatment, education, physical health and mental health,” Masseau said. “Every national standard I’ve read says that it should never be used as a punitive measure, that it should only be used when the kid’s actively a danger to himself or others, and even then calls for frequent review. It’s all geared toward minimizing the amount of time a kid is removed from the normal environment.”
“It’s not helping kids emerge from facilities better equipped than when they entered,” Lutz said. “Unfortunately, it’s been the tool that’s been used for so long that staff and facilities can no longer see how ineffective it is.”
Regulation on the issue of room confinement for juveniles in the state has long been murky. DHS administrative code, which has the force of law, contains more stringent limits than what has been the practice at some facilities (“it’s unclear who, if anyone, actually enforces this code,” Masseau said).
While the DYS has no official policy on the use of room confinement, the division did develop a policy in 2015 at the prompting of Disability Rights Arkansas. Although it was never promulgated, Marq Golden, the DYS assistant director for residential programs, said the draft policy nonetheless served as a baseline set of expectations for both outside vendors and state staff.
Golden also said that the DYS requires facilities to comply with American Correctional Association (ACA) standards. Those standards limit room confinement for juveniles to five days, stating that “the time a juvenile spends in disciplinary confinement is proportionate to the offense committed,” and establish parameters for administrative review. “They have to be accredited by ACA so that kind of secures us in that aspect,” Golden said. Although the contract requires it within one year of the start date, Rite of Passage, which took over in August 2016, has not yet secured ACA accreditation for its management of AJATC; it is expected to be accredited by April 2018.
The DYS draft policy notes the five-day maximum on room confinement for juveniles set by ACA standards, but states that even emergency isolations (a term that is not defined) should generally be limited to four hours. It leaves open the possibility of disciplinary room confinement, but suggests it should be brief, without specifying precisely what that means.
“Our bottom line is this: Room confinement should not be done out of anger or simple irritation,” Webb said. “It should be done out of necessity.”
However, Rite of Passage policy on the duration of room confinement is markedly different than the DYS’ recommendation that room confinement typically shouldn’t exceed four hours. The company’s current policy is that room confinement will last a minimum of four hours and a maximum of 72 hours, Rite of Passage counsel said. The company could not provide any information about the average duration of such room confinements or how often they lasted more than 24 hours.
Golden said that the DYS draft policy was “written broadly to address a wide variety of scenarios, and those vendors such as RoP have to address the protocols beneath that to address those types of scenarios. When you write a policy like this, it is written more as a general guideline and then those who abide within that have to create the specific rules.”
Masseau said it was necessary for the DYS to promulgate an official policy on room confinement and isolation. “The failure of the Division to do so has resulted in confusion and inconsistent practice throughout the facilities,” he wrote in an email. “Staff are untrained in the appropriate response methods in the event a youth needs a time out, often triggering further incident. Without an official policy, there is no requirement that the staff and facility officials follow generally accepted guidelines to protect the health and safety of the youth. And in turn, there is no method for enforcement of or accountability for those staff who deviate from those generally accepted guidelines, because that is all that they are — guidelines.”
Webb said that the DYS “recognizes that it needs to be promulgated and we are in the process of getting that going.” Asked about a timeline, Golden said, “I don’t know a specific timeline within a year.”
National standards are generally moving away from punitive isolation practices. “In very rare situations, a juvenile may be separated from others as a temporary response to behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to any person,” a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report recommended. “Even in such cases, the placement should be brief, designed as a ‘cool down’ period, and done only in consultation with a mental health professional.” The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, states that even in an emergency situation, isolation should never exceed four hours; at that point, a youth should be transferred to a mental health facility or medical unit. A 2015 report developed by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) advised that “isolating youths … as a consequence for negative behavior undermines the rehabilitative goals of youth corrections.”
Ron Angel, who served as director of the DYS from 2007 to 2013, said he should have discontinued the use of Building 19 (at that time used to house sex offenders) altogether. “I should have gone ahead and done away with that concept, because it was prison,” Angel said. “You can quote me on that — if I could go back in time, I would shut that building down. Or remodel it into something that was more of a therapeutic setting.” Angel said that he tried to minimize the use of room confinement as anything more than a cool-down period of less than an hour. “I don’t think a prison cell is right for young kids, and I never did,” he said.
Asked in May whether Rite of Passage had any internal policies or protocols governing under what circumstances room confinement is used as a response, Cantrell said, “There’s not really a policy that spells that out, because every kid is so different. You start trying to put XYZ [triggers room confinement], then what happens is I have a reporter saying, ‘Well, the kid didn’t do XYZ.'”
Asked whether there were policies or protocols governing how long a youth would be confined in isolation, Cantrell said, “It really depends on their behaviors and when they’re calm and ready to rejoin the program. … Generally, our goal is that the kid is not there more than 24 hours. I mean, that’s our goal. Has there been an instance or two where that’s been longer? Yes.”
When the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network reached out to Cantrell again in July, he declined to speak by telephone, and Rite of Passage’s attorneys provided written responses to further questions.
It was in the intervening month that Tanner, the juvenile ombudsman, began to express concern about Building 19 and room confinement at AJATC.
Golden, the DYS official, soon arranged a meeting with Rite of Passage, on July 10. “I provided them the [draft policy] and informed them that they would have to follow that,” he said. “I told them that they could not use that facility in that manner if they were using it improperly. They were in agreement.”
On July 25, Tanner wrote in an email, “Rite of Passage has yet to furnish adequate policy supporting these practices … This practice, as we discussed, exposes the state and your program to risk. … I will continue to broad stroke this intervention as social isolation and an unacceptable practice until it is demonstrated to me to be supported by adequate policy, practice and monitoring.” Golden responded to Tanner, “I am in agreement that they should be drafting an internal policy.”
On Aug. 5, Rite of Passage provided Tanner with a June-dated policy on in-school interventions that contains the following language in bold text: “Being removed from school and placed in the cottage/building 19 DOES NOT warrant a student being locked in his or her room all day.” However, the newer policy does not appear to otherwise provide clear parameters for the use of room confinement; Tanner later wrote that none of the policies provided address some of the practices he has observed at AJATC.
Attorneys for the company told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network that as of June 20, Rite of Passage no longer used room confinement in response to misbehavior in class and ISS and described that practice as a holdover from G4S, the for-profit company that previously ran AJATC. Rite of Passage, which took over in August 2016, eventually determined that the practice “lacked the consistency and disciplinary value RoP sought to provide its youth.” Company policy, according to Rite of Passage counsel, now dictates that room confinement at AJATC can only be used as a response in four situations: when the youth is a danger to self or others (including fights), destruction of property, committing a class A felony, or possession of harmful contraband. It could also be used if a youth requests room confinement “due to emotional stressors.”
Although Rite of Passage does not keep aggregate data, it estimated that over the course of a typical month in the past year, less than 6 percent of the AJATC population — around half a dozen youths — were sent to room confinement in response to an emergency situation. The current policy described by Rite of Passage could allow for the use of room confinement in certain situations that do not involve immediate risk of harm to self or others; Rite of Passage did not provide an estimate of how often it has been used in such situations.
“We know that when young people are in isolation, there’s lots of needs that aren’t being met,” Lutz said. “They’re sent to facilities by judges to receive rehabilitation and treatment. Maybe they’re there for drug and alcohol treatment, or mental health counseling. Every minute in solitary is a minute they’re not getting that treatment.
“Many of these kids have serious educational deficits, and they have a constitutional right to an appropriate education. They’re not getting it when they’re in solitary confinement. What we often see — in a best-case scenario — assignments are slid under the door, and it’s come and collected later.”
Rite of Passage did not respond to specific questions about how the daily schedule or programing would operate for youths in room confinement. (For example: Would a student work on schoolwork alone in the cell, or interact with his regular teacher?) “Youth in reassessment adhere to the same daily schedule as the rest of the youth on campus,” Rite of Passage counsel said. “Building 19 has a schedule that supports school, meals and programs.”
It’s time for facilities to develop alternative approaches to locking kids in a cell, Lutz said. “Imagine you heard about a neighbor who locked their 15-year-old with mental health issues in a small linen closet for six hours and then removed them,” she said. “No. 1, would you think that would solve anything? And No. 2, that would be child abuse. Why is it any different for these kids? It’s harmful, it’s damaging, it’s abusive, and it doesn’t solve anything.”
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.