As someone who has both sued and run correctional facilities for youth in the juvenile justice system, I appreciate the dangers and challenges around the use of solitary confinement of youth. I also understand that the use of practices like solitary confinement and other harmful approaches, such as shackling of youth, are indicative of facilities and systems that ignore the research on what works with young people.
We also often see a range of problems in facilities that use solitary confinement, such as overcrowding, shortages of staff, including qualified mental health professionals, and lack of adequate training for staff, particularly on how to effectively de-escalate tense situations. In 2005, when I started with the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), Washington, DC’s correctional agency, we had all these problems and more in our secure facility. This included a “lock-down” unit where youth were kept in their rooms for 22 to 23 hours a day.
Youth on the “lock-down” unit, otherwise known as “10-A,” included young people who had been placed in solitary confinement for a range of reasons, including discipline (often as a response to fairly minor misbehavior), serious mental health issues, or “protection” from others (including in response to their sexual orientation). This was a unit that was abusive and harmful to youth on multiple levels.
The culture and practice at DYRS were so reliant on practices like solitary that when we opened a new detention center staff there approached me and asked that they be able to place acting-out youth in 10-A, even though it was more than 20 miles away in another facility. It was clear that staff believed that their only effective response to very challenging behaviors by young people was to lock them away in a small room, sometimes for days at a time.
Most of those working with our youth were decent, caring people who had taken jobs in the juvenile justice system out of a desire to help the young people with whom they were working. But the problem was that the system didn’t give them the tools to work effectively with delinquent youth, and was reliant on outdated and dangerous correctional practices.
Solitary confinement is one of the most problematic of such traditional correctional practices, often leading to severe mental and physical consequences for young people, including psychological harms, depression and anxiety. The use of solitary is also particularly harmful for adolescents, who are still developing and can suffer permanent harm to their psychological and social well-being as a result. We shouldn’t be surprised that youth in solitary are at increased risk of suicide, with more than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities occurring while youth are held in solitary. This literally can be a life-or-death issue.
Like most issues in our justice system, this is also a racial justice issue. Research shows that youth of color are overrepresented and disproportionately impacted at every stage of our juvenile justice systems, and that secure facilities across the country are overwhelmingly filled with black and brown youth. Based on this, we know that the majority of young people in solitary confinement are likely youth of color.
The harm from solitary confinement is finally getting the national attention it deserves, and President Obama's call for an end to solitary confinement of young people is an important step forward. While the president’s new policy only applies to the small number of youth charged with federal offenses, his call to action and the Department of Justice’s guidance in this area can serve as a model for state and county facilities, where most youth are incarcerated. President Obama joined a growing number of government officials, medical and mental health professionals, and juvenile justice experts, including those who run facilities, who want to end this counterproductive practice.
Stop Solitary for Kids, which is being launched today, is an effort to initiate a coordinated national movement to end solitary confinement for youth in all juvenile and adult facilities. The campaign is a unique partnership being led by advocacy, research and policy organizations, such as the Center for Children’s Law & Policy, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, the Justice Policy Institute and an organization whose membership are those who actually run juvenile facilities across the country, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. An extensive range of organizations have signed on in support of the campaign, including the ACLU, Children’s Defense Fund, American Psychological Association and the American Correctional Association.
The good news is that we know ending the use of solitary confinement is possible, actually resulting in safer facilities for youth and staff. In DC, we created a facility culture that was based on the principles of adolescent development and best practices in working with youth, which resulted in a much safer and rehabilitative facility. And there are an increasing number of states that have either eliminated the use of solitary confinement for discipline in their juvenile facilities, like Ohio and Massachusetts, or have decreased its use significantly, like Indiana and Oregon.
It is time to stop solitary for kids once and for all. We can do this, and it will result in a fairer and more effective justice system.
Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. He formerly served as general counsel, chief of staff and interim director for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, District of Columbia.
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(Part 1 of 2)
Solitary confinement is a practice that has been used in the U.S. prison system since 1829. It is based on a Quaker belief that prisoners isolated in stone cells with only a Bible use the time to repent, pray and find introspection.
In other words, it would give the individual the opportunity to learn a lesson from the experience. By 1890, reports showed that many of the inmates went insane, committed suicide or were no longer able to function in society.
When I was incarcerated in the Iowa prison system in 1992, I experienced some of the most horrific treatment at the hands of prison guards and the prison administration.
However, it is the solitary confinement I experienced at the Iowa State Training School for Boys, when I was 14, that I want to tell you about. You may be surprised that the year was 1990 — 100 years after those first reports — and that solitary confinement was still being used across the United States’ juvenile reformatories or state training schools for boys and girls.
Like most state-run facilities, the one I was in was located in a mostly white, rural environment. The staff was from the same monolithic, rural, white community. This is important to know, because a state training school will have hundreds of youth, almost always with a disproportionate number of minorities.
I entered this institution in January 1990 and it wasn’t long before I was placed in the Special Treatment Unit, or solitary confinement, for allegedly throwing up gang signs. This particular act of “throwing up” a gang sign involved me seeing another friend from my city and giving him the “peace” sign.
Immediately, some of the guys in my unit told me that I would be going to the “hole” (solitary confinement) because any hand sign brings “hole” time. I thought they were joking and eased into my pew of the church where we were forced to go every Sunday on campus (or go to the hole).
Within minutes of returning to my unit, I was approached by a youth service worker who frisked and handcuffed me. It was explained that I was going to the Special Treatment Unit for throwing up gang signs. Based on the looks on the faces of other guys in the unit, I felt like I had been handed a death sentence as they led me away. I am sure I served as a warning to other potential “rule violators.”
I was a 14-year-old boy and truly unaware of the physical, mental and emotional pain that awaited me. I was placed in a vehicle and driven to another building that served as the disciplinary segregation unit. I was placed in a cell and told to strip, so they could verify I did not hide any guns or knives under my testicles. The strip search was one of the most humiliating procedures I experienced as a juvenile. It was worse than regularly being required to shower in front of the female youth service workers, which was a common practice in 1990.
After the strip search, I was given a pair of old pajama bottoms, white T-shirt, secondhand underwear and a pair of socks. I was placed in a cell that was approximately 6 feet wide and 15 feet long. The cells of the Special Treatment Unit were filthy. The rooms were rarely cleaned and when the radiator was on, it would heat whatever body fluids had been thrown on it and emit disgusting smells. I had a stainless steel toilet, a mattress and an extremely dirty blanket. (I later learned that these blankets were placed in a laundry bin as juveniles left the facility and given to new admissions to the “hole” — without being sanitized.)
I laid down, stood up, did push-ups, prayed, thought of my family, cried, did sit-ups, drank water and after all that, I would ask the youth service worker who did the occasional round what time it was, only to find that only an hour had passed — if that. The feeling of being in this cell with no stimulation, no air, no interaction with people was one of monotony and a deafening silence. I felt a constant anxiousness and fear of sinking into madness and despair. And that was just during the first night in the Special Treatment Unit.
The next day, I was given a hearing by a team comprised of staff and one client to determine if I committed the alleged rule infraction, and if so, what disciplinary sanction would be delivered.
Needless to say, my hearing, like 99.9 percent of all the others, ended with me being found guilty and given three days in the Special Treatment Unit. When handed the sentence, I poked my chest out and acted as though it wasn’t a big deal. (Inside, I was crumbling like the little 14-year-old boy I was.)
I was told the three days would not start until the next day, because I was allowed to have a mattress during that day, and in order for my “hole time” to count, I was not allowed to have my mattress throughout the day. I also learned that I was not allowed to sleep during the day and if caught sleeping, another day would be added to my sentence. The one escape I thought I would have to help the time pass was sleeping. Now, that had been pulled from underneath my feet. I was crushed and distraught.
I didn’t learn any lessons from that traumatic experience. I was a 14-year-old boy — impulsive, defiant and reactive to this experience. I spent numerous times in the Special Treatment Unit during my stay in that facility, and each experience was just as horrific as the last.
They purposefully manipulated the climate control system so in January the heat was kept extremely high, and in June the air conditioning was set to icy. This resulted in additional sensory deprivation and exponentially increased the disembodied, unreal and torturous existence that led to countless kids having nervous breakdowns and other psychotic episodes. That led them to being placed in four-point restraints and fed a meal where all their food was ground up and baked into a “loaf” so they could not throw it at the staff.
While this was in the 1990s, we should not believe these practices have been abandoned. There are still some state and privately run facilities with similar conditions, still using solitary confinement. These facilities usually subscribe to the American Correctional Association standards, which, in my opinion, is a dereliction of duty and a violation of juveniles’ rights. They need to be better regulated. Without a higher degree of regulation, these facilities end up acting as feeders for the adult prison system, and I’m proof of that.
The time I spent in solitary confinement did not cause me to repent. I believe it paved the way for me to leave the Iowa State Training School for Boys and “graduate” to prison in 1992.
Subsequently, I would go on to serve six years in the Iowa Department of Corrections, spending four of those years in various forms of solitary confinement. I’m not the only example. There are far too many juveniles who enter the system early and never leave. While many things have changed in the juvenile justice system since the 1990s, we still have a lot of lessons to learn.
In my next column, I will discuss solitary confinement in the adult prison system.
Jeff Wallace has spent most of his life studying the effects of the policy and procedures followed by the criminal justice system on at-risk youth — first as one of those youths and then through his undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminal justice. He is founder and president of STEPQuadCities.org. His email is email@example.com. See his Tedx talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOxpjjzP6lM
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Citing research and data on the negative impacts of solitary confinement on the human mind and spirit, President Obama has banned the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons for juveniles. The hope is that for now, this policy will serve as a model for state correctional systems to adopt as well.
Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, is also working to prohibit widespread juvenile solitary confinement. Booker teamed with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, to introduce the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act of 2015 to the U.S. Senate. This legislation raises the age of criminal responsibility and restricts the use of juvenile solitary confinement.
Both of these examples and others across the country tell us that the compelling brain science is finally starting to make its way into the formation of policies — and we need to keep it going.
Studies have documented that the effects of solitary confinement on young people are damaging and lasting. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, United Nations and American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have suggested or supported prohibition of the practice.
It’s very promising to see counties, states, the federal government and our president use science and data to begin to reform the criminal justice system in our country — one that impacts the lives of more than 2 million individuals and close to 1 million children each year.
Using science to support certain types of policy is a very welcome advance, and one that the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities proposes will move the needle on a wide range of challenges we face. Indeed, there is more brain science available that has broad applicability beyond criminal justice that we believe can be successfully aligned to create better policies that ensure a safer and more positive future for our children, families and adults.
Today we know how both positive and negative experiences can alter brain architecture and change the way we interact and respond to our environments, including how we relate to each other. We also know how chronic, negative experiences at home and in the community in childhood can alter the brain, affecting everything from health and education to employability. There is great possibility for success in aligning our policies with how the brain is shaped and formed to build stronger people, and in turn more sustainable communities.
The Alliance’s Change in Mind Initiative is advancing the science. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Palix Foundation, 15 community-based organizations in the U.S. and Alberta, Canada, the initiative is now studying the integration of brain science research into the nonprofit sector. Each will demonstrate, through their leadership and advocacy power, the role of our sector as influencer to alter systems and change policies.
We believe, if done correctly, science-informed policy will not just help solve some of society’s most vexing challenges, but will over time lower the cost curves in areas such as health to allow us to make deeper investments in prevention, stronger families and better communities that are key to accelerating the economic health of our nation.
Susan Dreyfus is the president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, the nation’s largest network of human-serving organizations. She is the former secretary for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and Wisconsin’s first administrator of the Division of Children and Family Services. She is a member of Leadership 18, a coalition of CEOs from the largest and most respected nonprofit organizations in America, and was appointed to the 12-member National Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities in 2013.
President Obama recently announced a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles being held in the federal prison system, saying it can have “devastating and lasting psychological consequences.” His orders followed a report recently released by the U.S. Justice Department, commissioned to review the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, that found that it is widely overused.
While the steps the president has taken are laudable — including prohibiting federal corrections officials from punishing prisoners with solitary confinement for low-level offenses, limiting the number of days a prisoner can be punished with solitary confinement to 60 days for the first offense rather than 365 days, and banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal facilities — they serve only as a model for policies decided on in state prisons and local jails, where the vast majority of juvenile and adult offenders are being held in solitary confinement. In fact, the president’s reforms will only apply to about 10,000 adults and a handful of juvenile offenders placed in “administrative segregation” or “restrictive housing” cells in federal prisons each year.
The vast majority of the roughly 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S. are in state prisons and jails where solitary confinement for juveniles is much more common, largely due to children being housed in adult detention facilities and the “necessity” of “involuntary protective custody” as a means to ensure their safety. There is very little information about the number of children currently being held in solitary confinement at the state level in the U.S.
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A 2012 Human Rights Watch report explains that: “Youth offenders often spend significant amounts of their time in US prisons isolated from the general population. Such segregation can be an attempt to protect vulnerable youth offenders from the general population, to punish infractions of prison rules, or to manage particular categories of prisoners, such as alleged gang members. Youth offenders typically describe their experience in segregation as a profoundly difficult ordeal.”
Juveniles are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail as compared to a juvenile detention facility, and 19 times more likely to commit suicide when in solitary confinement as opposed to confined with the general population, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.
Juveniles are often held in solitary confinement in local jails before they have been convicted of a crime at the pretrial phase of criminal justice proceedings. This was the case for Kalief Browder, the young man President Obama highlighted in his recent editorial in the Washington Post, who was arrested at age 16 for stealing a backpack but never stood trial. Kalief was held for nearly two years in solitary confinement on Rikers Island before being released in 2013. However, he never recovered from the psychological trauma and committed suicide at age 22.
Solitary confinement generally consists of inmates being kept alone in an 80 square-foot space furnished with a bed, sink, toilet and food delivered through a slot in the door. Individuals who experience prolonged isolation in a small room with sensory deprivation report depression, alienation, withdrawal and difficulty engaging with others after their release.
Research on the effects of extreme isolation on behavior suggests that it has damaging and potentially persistent negative psychological consequences. One study conducted in the 1950s by University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow involved placing rhesus monkeys inside a solitary confinement chamber nicknamed “the pit of despair.” The cell consisted of a chamber shaped like an inverted pyramid with slippery sides, making it impossible to escape. Harlow observed that after two days, “most subjects typically assume a hunched position in a corner of the bottom of the apparatus. One might presume at this point they find their situation hopeless … [isolation led to] profoundly disturbed [behavior], given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.” Most of the monkeys were able to readjust after short periods of isolation, but “twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” Harlow observed.
Numerous organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and others advocate abolishing solitary confinement for juveniles given the existing evidence regarding its effects on the psyche. In a July 2015 article published in The Guardian, “Solitary Confinement Isn’t Punishment It’s Torture,” the author reports that half of all successful suicides in U.S. prisons occur in solitary confinement cells, calling prolonged isolation a “grave human rights abuse for innocent and guilty alike.”
While brief periods of isolation may be necessary in specific instances as a security measure, as these organizations acknowledge, prolonged isolation has the potential to leave a permanent scar on many individuals, especially juveniles.
It is thus time to reconsider the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and jails. President Obama’s actions at the federal level are important but largely symbolic for most of the 100,000 individuals currently being held in isolation. More work must be done to bring awareness to the need for broader criminal justice reform efforts and encourage action at the state and local levels to implement meaningful policy changes.
I am currently teaching a course at Georgia State University on social justice and politics for undergraduate political science majors. Most of the students in my seminar are planning to graduate in May and apply for law school. A group of these students are working together to build an 8 foot by 8 foot solitary confinement cell this semester to display on campus.
The cell is a replica of an exhibit from the Richard Ross Studio in Santa Barbara, California. It includes an audio feature with streaming interviews from juveniles who have been held in isolation. It will be on display from mid-March through May, culminating in a summer workshop in which Professor Ross will be a featured speaker on campus at the Zoukis Summer Workshop at Georgia State University.
We hope the exhibit and summer workshop will promote awareness of the consequences of solitary confinement for juveniles and adults currently serving time in these facilities. It’s time to rethink solitary confinement in state prisons and jails given evidence of its short-term and long-term psychological consequences.
Dr. Toby Bolsen is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University and director of the Zoukis Research Collaborative. His research focuses on political attitudes and behaviors, media and communications, and scholarship on teaching and learning.
Sometimes it takes a tragic and heartrending story of a single human being to move broad public policy. In the instance of the solitary confinement of youth, the catalyst was the case of Kalief Browder. An African-American 16-year-old, Browder was wrongly charged with theft of a backpack in May 2010 and held for three years at Rikers Island after a judge set his bail at $3,000, an amount the teenager’s family could not post.
Browder was then confined with hundreds of other 16- to 18-year-olds in a section of Rikers where brutal attacks by guards and fights among inmates were common. He was targeted by gangs, beaten by officers and told that if he reported the incidents to medical staff he would be sent to solitary confinement.
Meanwhile, Browder’s criminal charges were caught up in the extreme backlog of the Bronx court system. Because he repeatedly refused to plead guilty, his case was set for trial. Yet delays caused by court congestion kept pushing back the trial date.
Not long after arriving at Rikers, Browder was placed in solitary for two weeks following a scuffle with an inmate. Six months later, another fight led to his second trip to solitary, where he remained for about 10 months. Even in isolation the threat of violence is a reality, however, and a tense exchange of words triggered an attack on Browder by a guard.
As the months turned into years, Browder became depressed and lost weight. After he tried to hang himself with a bed sheet, he was returned to solitary.
Browder’s case was ultimately dismissed in May 2013 after 31 court dates and three years at Rikers, the majority of which he spent in isolation. The alleged victim had left the U.S. and the prosecutor acknowledged that they were “unable to meet our burden of proof at trial.”
Although Browder made some strides after his release, including earning his GED, finding a part-time job and starting classes at Bronx Community College, the damage of incarceration and isolation had already been done. His mental health rapidly deteriorated, and on June 6, 2015, he committed suicide at his parents’ home in the Bronx. He was 22.
Earlier this week, President Barack Obama invoked Kalief Browder, his time in isolation and his suicide in an op-ed in the Washington Post announcing a ban on the solitary confinement of juveniles in the federal prison system, among other critical reforms that would also affect the 10,000 adult inmates serving time in isolation.
After relating the facts of Browder’s life, the president wrote, “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”
Although the federal Bureau of Prisons is responsible for fewer than 100 juvenile inmates, with only a handful placed in “restrictive housing,” the president’s executive action reflects a broader recognition of the need to treat adolescents and young adults differently based on their cognitive and psychological capacities. The ban also is likely to trigger reforms on the state level of solitary confinement policies for both youth and adult inmates, including those with mental illnesses. The U.S. Department of Justice has estimated that more than 57,000 juvenile offenders are incarcerated in jails and prisons across the U.S., with many held in solitary confinement.
One important aspect of the discussion of the solitary confinement of youth that has received little attention is the role of race and socioeconomic status. Research has demonstrated that young people of color — like Kalief Browder — are more likely to be placed in the juvenile and adult court systems, to remain in them longer and to experience more punitive sanctions than whites.
This trend is true even when controlling for a variety of factors, including the severity of the offense, and it is particularly true for drug and weapon possession cases, despite higher rates of drug use and possession by white youth than youth of color.
Similarly, families of means inevitably have greater access than low-income families to voluntary mental health services and other services to treat conditions that can trigger referrals to juvenile court as well as contribute to the likelihood of probation violations. Browder, for instance, had previously been on probation as a “youthful offender” for joyriding, which the judge cited as the reason for holding him after the theft charge. Wealthier families are also more likely to be able to post bail, which Browder’s family could not do.
These trends are compounded by probation officers who assume that all impoverished neighborhoods are high risk and dangerous for youth, increasing the likelihood that they will recommend incarceration for these adolescents, rather than community-based treatment or counseling.
With higher percentages of children of color and poor children charged and then detained in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, higher percentages of them are consequently held in solitary confinement.
At the vast majority of juvenile detention centers, often the only hope for young people held in prolonged isolation lies with lawyers or other youth advocates willing to expose the practice, report it to the appropriate parties and advocate for its ban.
Kalief Browder, like many low-income youth, did not receive rigorous legal representation. He was appointed a lawyer who never made the trip to Rikers to visit him and rarely, if ever, spoke with him between court dates.
Attorneys representing incarcerated young people should regularly ask their clients about the conditions of confinement and specifically question them about isolation practices: whether solitary confinement is used, under what circumstances, its duration, whether there is any debriefing following its use and whether alternative strategies are ever utilized.
If an attorney suspects the excessive use of isolation, she should immediately bring the situation to the judge’s attention at a hearing reviewing the conditions of confinement. If these types of hearing are not mandated in the client’s jurisdiction, she should file a motion for review of the conditions of confinement. The lawyer should also contact the administrator or the licensing or regulatory agency for the facility holding the juvenile.
Unfortunately, prisoners’ legal services have become increasingly limited as legal aid budgets are cut and offices are forced to discontinue these programs. Because of this, every correctional facility should have an inmate-grievance system with counselors who address both routine and emergency complaints. Every facility should also have the equivalent of an institutional ombudsperson available for adolescent inmates to raise claims or express concerns related to their conditions of confinement.
With this week’s executive action ending the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons, President Obama has continued to shine a spotlight on some of the most egregious aspects of the criminal justice system. He is the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. His initiative My Brother’s Keeper has funded housing programs for adults and juveniles just released from prison and established second-chance programs to give young offenders the opportunity to enter the workforce.
Kalief Browder’s short life continues to have meaning. As the president wrote in his Washington Post op-ed, “Today, [solitary confinement] is increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.”
Tamar Birckhead is a criminal defense attorney, law professor and director of clinical programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.
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In a historic moment Monday, President Obama used his executive authority to end the use of solitary confinement for youth in the federal prison system.
This action is incredibly important to the numerous youth who are prosecuted and sentenced as adults in the federal Bureau of Prisons each year. Youth housed in adult facilities are often subject to solitary confinement as a perverse means of “protecting” them from the adult population, making the abuse even more egregious for this population. Citing a Department of Justice review of the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement by the Bureau of Prisons, Obama called upon our “common humanity” to end this torturous practice.
The 53 recommendations drawn by the Department of Justice will apply to the Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service, but also send a strong message to states to create a less harmful environment for those in its care.
The recommendations say youth under age 18 “shall not be placed in restrictive housing” except in “very rare” circumstances when there is serious and immediate risk of injury to another person, and then only in consultation with a mental health professional. While they stop short of giving a specific maximum length of time allowed in those “very rare circumstances,” they clearly state that youth under 18 don’t belong in isolation, period.
And the recommendations go farther: They include recommendations for youth ages 18-24 that include training all correctional staff on young adult brain development and de-escalation tactics; developmentally responsive policies and practices including therapeutic housing communities and services to reduce the number of incidents that could lead to restrictive housing; and urge limiting the use of restrictive housing whenever possible, and if used, to limit the length of stay and to identify appropriate services they can receive while in restrictive housing.
These recommendations are important first steps to ending the use of solitary confinement for youth. The harmful effects of solitary confinement are well documented. Individuals subjected to such extreme deprivation, locked in isolation for 23 hours a day for weeks, months and even years, are linked to devastating, long-term psychological consequences including depression, anxiety and withdrawal from other individuals.
For youth whose minds and bodies are still growing and developing, these consequences are amplified and too often lead to dire consequences including self-harm and suicide. In fact, the Department of Justice found that youth in solitary commit suicide at twice the rate of adults. Other research has shown that youth in solitary in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than if they were housed in the juvenile justice system.
In his announcement, Obama said, “We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives. And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger, and worthy of our highest ideals.”
While we certainly applaud Obama for taking this momentous step forward, we urge him to take further actions to protect youth in federal custody, such as preventing them from being in adult facilities to begin with. In 2012, the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence recommended that practices like solitary confinement, which traumatize children and reduce their opportunities to become productive members of society, be abandoned.
It also urges, “Whenever possible, prosecute youth offenders in the juvenile justice system instead of transferring their cases to adult courts.”
We urge Obama to use his remaining time in office to implement this recommendation by “strengthening federal regulations and essentially prohibit states and localities from incarcerating any person younger than 18 in an adult prison or jail as a condition of federal funding.”
It is long past due that our country starts treating children like children. Ending the practice of placing youth held in federal prisons in solitary confinement is a critical step toward this broader goal. Now isn’t it time to ask why children are sentenced to time in federal prison at all?
Marcy Mistrett is CEO of the Campaign For Youth Justice, a national initiative focused entirely on ending the practice of prosecuting, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.
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The solitary confinement policies for youth vary widely in Nebraska, with stays of weeks and even months permitted in some facilities, says a new report from the ACLU of Nebraska.
In the state’s nine facilities that house juveniles, the maximum stay in solitary ranges from five days to 90 days, some of the most stringent policies in the country, said the report, “Growing Up Locked Down.”
A youth can land in solitary for a serious rule violation but also for minor infractions, such as having too many books. The report is based on public records requests.
The ACLU also found several facilities lack a written policy on solitary confinement or logs that show the amount of time juveniles spend in insolation.
“This research makes clear that the policies and usage for solitary confinement among vulnerable Nebraskans truly shocks the conscience. We can and must do better,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the group, in a statement.
The group recommended lawmakers adopt a statewide policy on the use of solitary and consider banning the practice. They also recommended limitations and protections such as an appeals process, strict approval requirements for solitary stays of more than four hours and clear documentation about when and why solitary is used.
The report is one more example of growing concern about the use of solitary for youth and interest in eliminating it as a punishment. Researchers have found the practice can cause psychological and physical harm, especially among children and adolescents who are still developing.
In Nebraska, the average stay in solitary ranged from 1.76 hours to more than eight days during an 18-month period ending in June 2015, the ACLU found. The longest stay, of 90 days, came at the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility, a state-run facility.
Dawn-Renee Smith, acting communications director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, said the state is working with groups including the ACLU to develop regulations regarding the use of restrictive housing.
“NDCS uses restrictive housing as necessary for youthful offenders adjudicated as adults and sentenced to its custody. There are processes in place to ensure a review by the facility warden as well as to provide the individual with a voice to appeal the decision,” she said in a statement.
Amy Miller, legal director at the ACLU of Nebraska, said the “jaw-dropping” policies and personal stories described in the report have provoked a strong reaction. People are sharing stories of their own experiences with juvenile solitary or those of their families in comments on social media. Even advocates and lawyers in the juvenile justice field have been surprised by the findings, she said.
“I think there’s a great amount of shock and surprise. That means it feel like there could be an opportunity for consensus,” she said.
The state’s legislative session began this week, and Miller is hopeful legislation may be introduced to reform solitary practices. A state law would be preferable to reforms at each facility, to ensure youth are treated the same no matter where they are incarcerated, she said.
Mark Soler, executive director at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, said he expects to see more state action across the country this year to curb the use of solitary confinement for youth. The group is working with other organizations, including in the corrections field, to help build a national strategy around the issue.
More reports like the one from Nebraska are likely, and can provide the foundation for effective reform, Soler said.
“We need to know what the policies are in these agencies, and we need solid data on how those policies are implemented,” he said.
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NEW YORK — Correctional officers brought Tama Bell’s mentally ill son to the brink of suicide for throwing a rag on a table, she says.
Bell’s son, Masai, was at Mid-State Correctional Facility in Marcy, N.Y., in 2014 for a psychiatric evaluation and had gotten a job there. Inmates and officers were making fun of him when he was cleaning tables and told him to redo it, she said. He grew resentful of their prodding, threw the rag on the table and walked away.
The officers then made the other inmates leave the room. They beat him up, Bell said, and sent her son to solitary confinement for 23 hours a day at Auburn Correctional in Auburn, N.Y. He stayed there, wallowing for three months. By the time he entered his second month of 23-hour-a-day solitary, he started talking about suicide, she said.
Masai has bipolar disorder with psychotic features, but he had never talked of ending his life before. That is why Bell was one of about 15 organizers who took to the streets Wednesday hoping to draw attention to this practice so they could help hasten its end across the state.
“I believe that even if you weren’t mentally ill when you went in, you will be when you get out,” Bell said.
Inmates in solitary confinement often spend 23 hours a day alone in their cells, so the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) holds rallies on the 23rd of each month to draw attention to that number, which they call state-sanctioned torture.
Late Wednesday afternoon, a small crowd gathered outside the Gun Hill Road subway station, near the intersection of White Plains Road, a major commercial stretch in the Bronx. They held large painted signs and used a megaphone to send a message to residents heading to the train during rush hour, but one they also hope will reach the state house in Albany.
As the sun set Wednesday evening, they passed around the megaphone, enthusiastically chanting and sharing their stories with whoever would listen. Their chants competed with the sound of trains intermittently clanking on the tracks overhead and the hiss of buses unloading passengers. The group passed out flyers and tried to talk to people.
Many of the members out that day had experienced isolated confinement themselves when they were incarcerated. The protesters said it was an unjust practice. They warned about the harm isolation can have on an inmate’s mental health.
“It was torture, ultimately,” said Craig Williams, a 33-year-old campaigner and former inmate. He spent eight and a half years in prison, three months in solitary.
“One thing I hated the most [about solitary] was only having three showers in a week.” He described how demoralizing it felt to smell his own stench and have no control over it.
Once Williams got out of solitary, he joined the Bard Prison Initiative. He read Plato’s “The Republic” and studied anthropology, giving him a more critical perspective on his situation.
“That helped me understand the whole structure and helped expose me to the conditions I was in,” he said. He thought about how to work within the system and stay out of solitary.
“It’s hard to avoid,” Williams said. “I would just dodge the officers. They pick and choose what they want to do.” They might give you a ticket if your shirt isn’t tucked in, he said, or they might untuck your shirt and then give you a ticket for not having your shirt tucked in. Williams now works as the outreach manager for Photo Patch Foundation, an organization that connects children to their incarcerated parents through photo sharing and letter writing.
While walking to his train, Jimmy Jackson passed by the rally and took a flier. He was once incarcerated himself, back in the 1980s.
“There’s some people who have to be separated” from the rest of the prison population, Jackson said. “They can be a danger.”[module type="aside" align="right"]
Learn more about mental health on the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.[/module]
“You can separate people if there’s security need, but you don’t need to isolate them,” he said.
This is largely the difference CAIC seeks to define through supporting the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act.
The protesters said they see the HALT Act as a comprehensive bill that would go a long way toward changing the system. It would limit the amount of time an inmate can spend in isolated confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days, and no more than 20 days total in a 60-day period.
The HALT Act would also provide alternatives to isolated confinement, such as therapeutic rehabilitation. It is now with a state Senate committee.
The organizers of Wednesday’s event called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s acting commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Anthony J. Annucci, to support the legislation.
“They have the power and authority to turn away from the torture of solitary confinement and move towards more effective and humane approaches right now,” said Jared Chausow, campaign coalition member.
Masai was originally incarcerated for violating a felony probation, Bell said. That meant he was supposed to attend regular mental health appointments, and he did not comply. After two and a half years of incarceration, her son came home this year on Sept. 4. The prison, she said, provides minimal mental health support for this transition, and Tama continues seeking better treatment for her son.
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On Jan. 8, 2014, 13-year-old Angel Mercado-Santiago was shot and killed outside his school in Atlantic City, N.J. Jerome Ford, a 14-year-old, turned himself into the police a few days later. Violent crimes by juveniles are often waived into the adult court system and the burden is on the defendants to make a case that it should stay in family court.
Ford's attorney Joseph Swift said they spent 15 days making the case in family court that Ford could be rehabilitated, which is the basis for the judge’s decision for what court a juvenile should be tried in. Swift was successful but the prosecutor’s office can still appeal the decision.
A juvenile justice reform bill passed by New Jersey’s state legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Christie on Aug. 10 will keep 14-year-olds out of criminal court, regardless of the crime. New Jersey is the first state to have no exceptions in the law surrounding waivers for defendants 14 and under.
The bill, S 2003, also narrows the list of offenses that can lead to prosecution as an adult, keeps some prisoners in juvenile custody until age 21, ends solitary confinement as a punishment and restricts the duration when it is used as a safety measure.
New Jersey is one of 21 states that directs its juvenile courts to focus on rehabilitation, using language from the Balanced and Restorative Justice movement. The movement focuses on three primary interests: public safety, accountability to victims and the community as well as developing skills in offenders so they can have productive and law-abiding lives.
The bill takes effect seven months from signing. Some juvenile justice organizations are hoping New Jersey’s reforms will prompt other states to follow.
Melissa Sickmund, the director at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, singled out New York, which treats 16- and 17-year-olds as adults no matter the offense.
“What a huge difference between what side of the river you’re on," she said.
S 2003 isn’t the only juvenile justice reform originating from New Jersey. On Aug. 5, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., the former mayor of Newark, introduced the Mercy Act, which has been sent to committee. It would end solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody besides brief “cooling-off periods.” Those confinements would last no more than a few hours and only in response to a behavioral issue that posed serious and immediate risk to themselves or others.
Earlier this year, Booker co-sponsored the Redeem Act with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Among other criminal reforms, it would encourage states to keep those under 18 out of adult jails and seal records of 15-year-old and younger nonviolent offenders. It has also been sent to committee.
The S 2003 bill, first proposed two years ago, originally tried to prevent juveniles 15 and under from going to criminal court. According to a study by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, only 1.6 percent of juveniles getting waived to criminal courts were 14 nationwide. In New Jersey between 2007 and 2015, only eight 14-year-olds were waived to adult courts. For 15-year-olds, there were 49 instances.
Kathy Wright, the executive director of the New Jersey Parents’ Caucus, which took part in the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition that supported the bill, still counts S 2003 as a win. Her organization recently sponsored a daylong conference with roundtables to discuss the next reforms to push.
"It's a step in the right direction but the work is not done," she said. “The end goal is to close down the juvenile prisons and move to rehabilitation programs."
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During the fall of 2013, Rosemary Summers, a 16-year-old from San Diego County, Calif., committed suicide at a juvenile hall called the Girls Rehabilitation Facility. She ended up there for failing to tell her probation officer that she had attended a Trayvon Martin rally, having been on probation for a few misdemeanors.
Rosemary, a trauma survivor with a history of depression and suicide attempts, was placed in solitary confinement for six weeks before her suicide. She repeatedly asked to see her counselor but was ignored. She hung herself with a bed sheet.
It is time for California to take leadership on ending the archaic, inhumane practice of solitary confinement, which the United Nations calls a form of torture.
On Tuesday, the California Senate successfully passed Senate Bill 124, which goes to the Assembly this summer. If enacted, this bill would be the most progressive piece of state legislation passed in the United States for youth subjected to solitary confinement. Similar versions of this bill have been introduced in the state for the last three years.
At this important moment in history when we are beginning to push back on the costly, ineffective and failed public policy experiment of mass incarceration, national momentum against solitary confinement has been gaining. Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma and West Virginia have all taken steps to curb solitary confinement for youth. These reforms have occurred through lawsuits or departmental policy changes, often after high-profile scandals.
SB 124, co-sponsored by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Youth Justice Coalition, the California Public Defender’s Association, and the Children’s Defense Fund-California, has already gathered a number of supporters, including a long list of community organizations, mental health service providers, researchers, unions and advocates.
It has also been strengthened by the recent groundbreaking settlement agreement in Contra Costa County, which would end the practice of solitary confinement as a punishment or disciplinary measure. Contra Costa County faced a federal class-action lawsuit by Public Counsel and Disability Rights Advocates for placing youth with disabilities in lockdown 23 hours a day, and depriving them of education as punishment.
The bill would limit this punitive and overused practice in juvenile facilities by only allowing it to be used as a last resort up to a maximum of four hours and by mandating that all facilities document when it is used. Solitary confinement has become a crutch in juvenile facilities, routinely used and abused for behavior modification, discipline and as a substitute for addressing a youth’s mental health issues.
A 2011 audit of youth prisons in California found that youth in solitary were often isolated in their cells for 23 hours a day without education, programming or adequate counseling and mental health treatment. For those with mental health conditions, isolating young people with pre-existing trauma histories exposes them to further dangers. Fifty percent of youth who commit suicide were found to have been in solitary confinement.
SB 124 would mean a great deal to the approximately 700 youth are incarcerated in California’s four Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) and about 7,600 youth in about 100 county juvenile facilities. Currently, state regulations on solitary confinement are minimal, and each county uses the practice as it sees fit with little oversight.
Jennifer Kim, director of programs for the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, Calif., notes the glaring moral contradiction in how we allow this practice to endure: “Current law allows juvenile facilities to engage in a dangerous practice that would be considered child abuse if parents were the ones isolating their kids.”
In California and across the nation, many juvenile facilities stray from the term “solitary confinement” and often mask its destructive nature by using words like “behavior treatment program,” “special housing units” or “separation.” The harmful impact of isolation is the same, regardless of the name used.
SB 124 would finally create a uniform definition of solitary confinement: “the placement of a person in a locked sleep room or cell alone with minimal or no contact with persons others than guards, correctional facility staff, and attorneys.” This definition and the bill’s data tracking requirements will ensure this practice is documented and regulated.
Additionally, SB 124 places considerable limitations on when solitary confinement can be used — specifically, that it can only be used when a youth poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility when all other less restrictive options have been exhausted. Under the bill, the maximum time a youth posing a safety concern could be held in solitary is four hours, and facilities must address the young person’s mental and physical health.
Some probation officers trained to use solitary confinement often ask, “Then what is the alternative?” Successful facilities and jurisdictions throughout the nation have for years curbed the use of harsh disciplinary practices like solitary confinement by employing developmentally appropriate alternatives. These methods have allowed youth to be engaged in programming, education and counseling while creating less damage to youth.
Places like New Beginnings in Washington, D.C., have used methods like separating the young person in humane conditions for cooling-down periods, utilizing verbal de-escalation tactics and effective crisis management techniques, and building the facility around a relationship-building trauma-informed approach to working with staff and youth.
We cannot give up on young people. While these changes will not come in time for Rosemary, they will ensure other vulnerable children in California who are caught up in the juvenile justice system are protected.
Angela M. Chung, Esq., is a juvenile justice policy associate with the Children’s Defense Fund-California.