New Report: Minors in ‘Solitary’ Hallucinate, Harm Themselves

Some minors locked up alone for all but a couple of hours to protect them from adults, other threats

Isolation cell at the Loysville Youth Development Center, Loysville, PA: Photo by Richard Ross

A new report on solitary confinement of minors includes harrowing descriptions of the psychological and physical impact ‘solitary’ has on young people, as well as surprising revelations about why some authorities resort to isolating juveniles.

In “Growing Up Locked Down,” the groups Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union report that a substantial number of detained juveniles minors are placed in solitary confinement as punishment, or as part of their rehabilitation plans – or even for their own protection. Some custodians, researchers found, say they put juveniles who are in adult lockups into solitary confinement as a way to protect them from attacks by adult inmates.

Some minors interviewed said they were segregated in juvenile facilities for the same reason – to protect them from threats – and let out only for a couple of hours a day.

Released in October, the report is based on research and interviews conducted in local and state detention facilities in Florida, Colorado, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. Investigators also corresponded with confined minors in 14 other states.

“Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow,” researchers said. Minors described experiencing hallucinations, cutting themselves with staples or razors and attempting suicide multiple times. Some said they were denied contact with loved ones while in ‘solitary,’ which increased their depression.

The report also says that a Pennsylvania prison official told researchers that many minors in solitary confinement are prescribed sleeping aids and other medications to help them “cope and reduce anxiety.”

A growing number of psychiatrists, juvenile-justice experts and custodians with direct control over juveniles are turning away from using solitary confinement for young people. The report cites various experts who recommend that segregation of youths to be as brief as possible and that custodians use of proven alternatives to control behavior.

“Prison and jail officials sometimes say it is necessary to separate an inmate, or groups of inmates, from others to ensure the security of staff and inmates in the general population,” according to the report. “When this happens, some state prison officials said that they have to use solitary confinement, as they are not equipped to manage individual or small groups of prisoners in any other way. But several prison officials often told Human Rights Watch that they would like to have the ability to manage youth differently.”

In July, the Center for Public Integrity published a report on how California prison guards and probation officers defeated  a state bill that would have required mental-health evaluations of minors every four hours if they are put into solitary confinement. The proposal would have applied to minors in state lockup as well as to those in local facilities, where most detained juveniles in California now reside. The guards, who are big campaign donors in California, and probation officers argued that the proposal was vague, would interfere with guards’ decisions and would cost counties money they didn’t have to hire more staff.

Other states have adopted standards in recent years restricting the use of solitary to control minors in detention, the Center report explained. In June, the U.S. Senate held the first-ever federal hearing on solitary confinement. Speakers described the adverse impact the practice had on inmates who were later released, and how the use of long-term segregation spread among state and federal facilities.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Story from The Center for Public Integrity.

Solitary for Youth: The Fight in Illinois

Isolation cell at the Fairbanks Youth Facility Fairbanks AK. Photo by Richard Ross

CHICAGO -- Even as national organizations rallied this week to end solitary confinement for incarcerated juveniles across the country, the local branch of American Civil Liberties Union is working with prison officials and the federal court to focus on the issue here.

The goal: settle a lawsuit on behalf of 2,217 incarcerated youth with the Illinois Department of Juvenile Corrections over the system’s inadequate services and often-hostile environment.

A preliminary agreement calls for curbing the growing practice of solitary confinement in youth centers, which activists say constitutes “torture,” given its potential for causing long-lasting psychological harm.

The proposed settlement, which is due for a fairness hearing in federal court in Chicago on December 6, would be the latest victory in a larger movement to end the punitive isolation of youth in custody. In June, Congress held its first hearing on the issue of solitary confinement within U.S. prisons, where roughly 80,000 inmates are in “restricted housing“ at any given time nationwide, according to a 2005 census of adult inmates by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Long a focus of the adult prison reform movement, advocates say the practice is even more damaging to emotionally developing juvenile offenders.

Solitary confinement should be reserved for violent offenses, such as fighting or attacking a guard, according to federal law. But investigations of Illinois’ juvenile facilities conducted by the Juvenile Justice Project at the John Howard Association found that youth were frequently isolated for non-violent offenses. Juvenile offenders have been separated for transgressions as minor as eating a guard’s food.

Prison staff often separate youth on the charge of “intimidation,” which John Howard Association of Illinois noted lacked any formal definition. According to the prison reform organization, youth in custody are subject to “a lottery of sorts,” in which their punishment often relies on the guard’s disposition.

ACLU settlement doesn’t call for outright abolishment of solitary confinement, but rather clarification of what constitutes an offense punishable by isolation. ACLU-Illinois Senior Counsel Adam Schwartz, for example, said there might arise rare instances where a juvenile is violent or physically out of control and in need of a short “time-out.”

Joshua Delaney of the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, said some prisons also place youth in solitary confinement when they first arrive as a hopeful deterrent for future misbehavior.

“At one facility, approximately 20 percent of youth were housed in isolation on any given day, and denied essential programming, services and recreation,” Delaney said during a recent online gathering of juvenile justice officials and advocates, hosted by the National Center for Youth in Custody.

“Part of the problem stemmed from the bizarre facility practice of routinely isolating incoming residents for a number of days,” he said, “reportedly for the purpose of determining whether each new youth would pose a threat to the facility.”

Activists also discovered that non-offending youth are sometimes placed in solitary confinement as a means to protect them from potential abuse or harassment at the hands of other inmates.

A 2011 visit to Illinois Youth Center St. Charles found that because of its inadequate infirmary, injured or sick youth were being housed in solitary confinement. After a Juvenile Justice Project report on the problem, the center now sends their sick youth to a nearby youth facility with adequate health care.

Other recent efforts may help curb the practice of “protective” isolation. It is common for facilities to house gay and transgender youth separately in order to prevent physical or verbal victimization by other juvenile inmates. But according to a recent study on LGBTQ youth in custody by the policy think tank Center for American Progress, the practice further marginalizes the potential victim.

“This isolation perpetuates the stigmatization of gay and transgender youth, casts them as sexually deviant, and signals that they might be of threat to other youth,” according to the report. Rules for complying with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, issued in late August, have outlawed this practice.

A 2006 Washington University report found that solitary confinement can lead to trauma, psychosis and aggression among youth. Half of all suicides that take place within juvenile detention centers happen within solitary confinement. Roughly 65 percent of young people who committed suicide had a history of separation.  ACLU and Human Rights Watch released a joint report documenting the frequent use of solitary confinement of juveniles Wednesday.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for a ban on solitary confinement of young people and inmates with mental illness in 2011. “Considering the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause…  it can amount to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment…  for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles,” he said in a statement before the U.N. General Assembly.

Advocates hope a combination of international human rights pressure and local legislation will force American detention centers to rethink isolation of young offenders.

“There’s movement both on the congressional level and on the state level,” said Baher Azmy, legal director for Center for Constitutional Rights.

The center has led several lawsuits against solitary confinement, most recently in Pelican Bay, Calif. Azmy said focusing on youth may motivate legislators to stand up and address the issue of isolation.

“The important thing is to use litigation in combination with organization, media and legislative advocacy” said Azmy.

Photo by Richard Ross. 

Story from The Chicago Bureau

ACLU, Human Rights Watch Press for End to Juvenile Solitary Confinement

A solitary confinement cell at the Loysville Youth Development Center, Loysville, Pa. Photo by Richard Ross.

CHICAGO -- The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch published a stinging indictment Wednesday against the use of solitary confinement on minors – adding momentum to a lawsuit filed here last month claiming youth were locked in tiny, haunting cells for brushes as minor as speaking out of turn to a guard or disrupting a meal.

Wednesday’s 141-page report, which captured harrowing accounts from youngsters locked in solitary for up to months at a time, if not longer, called for an end to the practice, the exploration of remedial alternatives and changes to state and federal laws that currently allow for the practice.

Solitary -- according to the report’s interviews with prison officials and 125 minors from 19 states, including visits to facilities in Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania -- can cause irreparable harm to a minor’s psychological makeup at the very time their minds are maturing. Just as troubling, according to the report and experts in the field, solitary can re-traumatize juveniles who have grown up with abusive and violent pasts.

“The hardest thing about isolation is that you are trapped in such a small room by yourself,” according to a March interview in the report with a Michigan inmate identified as Paul K. “There is nothing to do so you start talking to yourself and getting lost in your own little world. It is crushing. You get depressed and wonder if it is even worth living. Your thoughts turn over to the more death-oriented side of life … I want[ed] to kill myself.”

The punishment, researchers found, was practiced in juvenile facilities as well as on minors sentenced to adult jails and prisons.

Much of the report echoed the claims made in a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU-Illinoisagainst the state’s juvenile corrections department last month. At the time the suit was filed in federal court in Chicago in mid-September, the ACLU included a sort-of prescription for remedying the problem in Illinois facilities.

“Our position is solitary confinement is never appropriate for juveniles with the sole exceptions of maybe an hour or so for somebody who may be physically out of control, as part of a behavioral intervention, time-out program,” said ACLU-Illinois Senior Counsel Adam Schwartz. “But anything other than that is just completely inappropriate for children.

ACLU-Illinois filed suit and a companion proposal to remedy the problem in mid-September,

A solitary cell at the Harrison County Juvenile Detention Center, Biloxi, Miss. Photo by Richard Ross.

Schwartz said. The suit and the proposal focuses on five areas of concern, among them solitary confinement for inmates ages 13 to 20.

The federal judge in the case signed off on a preliminary agreement, but a fairness hearing to actually kick in a period of monitoring and investigating isn’t scheduled until December 6 – “and hopefully that will end solitary confinement in Illinois,” Schwartz said.

“Solitary breaks the spirit and injures the mental health of adults,” he said. “Children, of course, are more vulnerable,” as their minds experience time more slowly, the chemical wiring of their brains is still ongoing and the punishment comes at the very time these minors need the sort of human interaction that will lead to more social and productive experiences.

“When you throw someone in solitary confinement, it re-traumatizes them, it’s a very upsetting experience, and it’s not just the confinement itself,” Schwartz said. “The place is filthy, it is small, it’s dark, it smells, there are bugs. And it’s not just for a violent offense. There’s kids who ate off someone else’s plate, or they were mouthy with a guard or they refused to step out of their cell at the breakfast call in the morning. We think there’s too much use, the conditions are horrible and really, the only solution is to just get rid of solitary confinement in juvenile prisons.”

The national report notes that in New York’s storied Rikers Island, the average stay of juveniles in solitary confinement was 43 days at a facility where nearly half of all adolescents have been diagnosed with some sort of mental illness. Overall in New York during the last fiscal year, which ended in June, almost 15 percent of the state system’s inmates under the age of 18 had spent time in solitary.

In a statement, Ian Kysel, a Aryeh Neier Fellow with Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, and the report’s author, said: “No one believes that locking a teenager in a closet is an effective way to improve either their behavior or their character, much less to protect them long term… Young people have rights and needs that are different from adults; jail and prison practices should reflect those differences and promote their ability to grow and change – we should invest in youth, not banish them.”

Photo by Richard Ross. Story from The Chicago Bureau

Cruel and Unusual Punishment: Kids in Solitary Confinement

When most Americans hear the constitutional phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” they can tell you what it means. Hanging. Flogging. Chain gangs.

But high on my list of “cruel and unusual punishment” is sentencing juvenile offenders to solitary confinement.

What else could you call locking up fifteen and sixteen year olds, some even younger, in total isolation for 24 hours a day, in some cases for months at a time, never letting them leave their cells?

“All an inmate’s needs are met right here,” was the way the warden of the county penitentiary in New York state where I taught high school proudly described it as he gave a group of professionals a tour of the new Special Housing Unit (SHU).  Each cell had its own phone, shower, toilet, concrete bed, and adjacent small-enclosed recreation area. Yes, all the needs were there except for the most essential: human contact.

These conditions, which are replicated nationally in our jails, are intolerable. The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that the United States has more inmates in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation.

Locking up a kid in those conditions, a kid with more energy than a playground can hold, whose body vibrates with urges that many more advantaged teens struggle to control and whose emotional and intellectual development is at best undernourished, can only be called “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Human Rights Watch agrees. Its recently released report-- “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life Without Parole in the United States”-- documents the overuse of juvenile solitary confinement and its devastating impact, often heightened, by the prospect of life without parole. The young people interviewed considered isolation a “profoundly difficult ordeal,” leaving them with “thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness or depression.”

But it’s not just “lifers” in solitary who experience this “profound difficult ordeal.” I saw it when I visited my jailhouse students who were locked up in “the cage,” as they called it. They were there because prison officials deemed them a threat to “safety and security.” In too many cases, however, that “threat” came from their acting-out behaviors due to untreated mental health issues or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Still others were seen as “pains in the ass” who “just needed to be taught a lesson.”

It didn’t take long for the new SHU to fall apart, the way everything does in jail. Walls were soon scuffed and gouged from inmates being dragged in; cell door windows were smeared as guys jammed and angled their faces to see anything, anyone. The only thing shattering that intense sensory deprivation was the sound of inmates shouting to each other, howling through the thick walls, trying to connect with another human, announcing to the world, “I’m still alive.” And when they weren’t screaming, they were sleeping—15 to 16 hours a day.

My students deteriorated as well. In solitary, they abandoned any sense of civilized behavior. Young guys once clean-shaven and showered, smelling of Old Spice deodorant now reeked of unwashed bodies; their hair was dirty and matted, faces fuzzed; their eyes caked and puffy from sleep. I would bang on the window until they awoke and lifted their heads from under the pillows and blankets they burrowed under against the cold. They’d shuffle over to the door and we’d squat on our own side of the concrete and glass wall and talk through the meal tray slot. It was then that I’d be hit by the smell of their sour, foul breath as though they were slowly decaying from the inside out.

Finally in 2009 the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) investigated these abuses. The DOJ reported that half of the inmates in the SHU were between 16 and 18, and the average stay in isolation was 365 days. As a result of these “extremely lengthy sentences,” their mental health worsened significantly, aggravated “by the jail’s failure” to provide routine treatment. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case. Abuses of minors in solitary are happening around the country.

The irony of their predicament was not lost on my students. We lock children up in inhumane conditions in order to teach them how to act humane. Unfortunately, as studies have shown, inmates learn a much different lesson. When they leave isolation they are angrier, more distrustful, more cynical about our justice system, and more prone to violence.

What could be a more “cruel and unusual punishment” then to confirm to these young people their bedrock belief that America, as it now is, has no place for them other than behind bars?

David Chura, author of I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, has worked with at-risk teenagers for 40 years.

The True Horror of Youth in Solitary Confinement

John Last 1The short hallway, maybe 15- or 20- feet long, had gray metal doors on each end. A single fluorescent light dimly lit the scene: flaking beige paint on damp block walls, dull scratched wax on the concrete floor. In the middle of the hall was another metal door, solid and gray as well, but with a small, narrow flap for passing food in and out. The cell was “striped,” a slab of concrete for sleeping, a hole in the floor for bodily functions. The floor sloped towards the center, and was slightly sticky. When the guards closed the door it became an isolation chamber. No sound. No light.

We called this place, “behind the wall.”

It was an isolation cell at a youthful offender prison where I spent a lot of time, a place called Alto, in north Georgia. It was used to break young men down, and it was often where punishment beatings took place as well. Even men who weren’t beaten would eventually begin to crumble. The isolation proved too much for even the toughest of us. Sometimes when the guards opened the door to deliver food you could hear the prisoners screaming, usually begging to be let out, with promises that they would behave. The technique was very effective.

When guys would come back to the regular population after confinement behind the wall they were usually in shock. Their eyes were wide, their ribs were usually visible from lack of food, and white inmates were very pale. They looked like people who had been in an accident or disaster of some sort. They would have to relearn the ability to connect with others in everyday conversation and other skills that we take for granted. They would stare into space, lost in their thoughts.

Today, the use of solitary confinement is increasingly being challenged, especially as it applies to juvenile offenders. Susan Ferriss, of the Center for Public Integrity recently wrote an article that appears in these pages. She gives an account of efforts in several states that have resulted in a lessening of the use of solitary confinement for punishment (a.k.a. behavioral management) and more control over its use for protective purposes. She notes that in California a recent proposal to oversee the use of isolation tactics was defeated in the state Assembly, and that the deciding vote to kill the proposal was cast by a recipient of significant campaign contributions from the prison guards union.

West Virginia, Mississippi and Montana have all made recent adjustments to their policies. Experts assert that isolation increases the risks of developing depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and that these risks are increased for adolescents. The American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a policy statement in April calling for strict controls over isolation and compliance with both the Eighth amendment and United Nation’s resolutions governing the treatment of juvenile offenders. A 2009 survey by the Department of Justice found that nearly half of the suicides committed by juveniles in confinement during a four-year period took place in instances of isolation.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, in the New York Times opinion page writes that in addition to the increased risk of mental illness, “…is the fact that youth frequently enter the criminal justice system with histories of substance abuse, mental illness and childhood trauma, which are only exacerbated by the stark deprivations of solitary confinement. Moreover, in solitary confinement access to programming that might facilitate a youth’s rehabilitation is virtually nonexistent. The results are predictably bad — for the child, for the institution and for public safety.”

It is understandable that in the dysfunctional world of a prison, isolation is often a preferred strategy for dealing with certain issues. Kids with mental illness who are ‘acting out,” kids needing protection and kids who are dangerous to others might all need to be isolated for a period of time. This can’t be the go - to solution in every instance though, nor should it be used as a punishment technique.

We need to discover ways to deal with these problems that keep everyone safe while also addressing the needs of and dangers to those who are isolated.


California Bucks Trend by Rejecting New Limits on ‘Solitary’

At the first-ever congressional hearing on the subject of solitary confinement, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois recently observed that it’s not always “the worst of the worst” who are subjected to the practice. Mentally-ill inmates, immigrants and juvenile offenders are put in solitary as well. And perhaps, said a series of witnesses at the hearing, the time has come to rethink the issue.

Many states are now doing just that. But the debate is not devoid of its own unique politics.

In California, for instance, a bid to require everyto require every-four-hour mental-health  evaluations of minors who are “segregated” from other wards died a quick death this spring — even though the Golden State’s legislature is one of the nation’s most liberal and the measure was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times. The legislation failed by one vote to move beyond the seven-member state Senate Public Safety Committee. Three of five Democrats voted for the bill, including the Senate’s top leader, Democrat Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento. But two Democrats and the committee’s only two Republicans voted against it.

Depending on who’s talking, the idea faltered because it was flawed, unnecessary and would cost the Golden State money it doesn’t have — or it died because law-enforcement groups with savvy lobbying and financial clout leaned on key legislators to kill it. The dispute is the latest in a series of Sacramento battles over policies pitting liberal juvenile-justice reformers against cops and corrections officers.

State-based reform

Others states have been forced into statewide restrictions. Last year, in response to a lawsuit, Mississippi agreed to tight limits on solitary confinement for juveniles who are in adult prison. Montana settled a lawsuit by adopting strict terms, including a requirement that wardens approve putting juveniles into solitary or “behavior management” isolation for more than 72 hours. In April, West Virginia joined six other states in prohibiting solitary confinement as a way to punish minors in detention.

That same month, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatryannounced its opposition to solitary confinement for juvenile offenders, warning that the practice deepens depression, psychosis and suicidal tendencies. Indeed, a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study showed that half of the 110 suicides by juvenile wards over a four-year period in the late 1990s were committed by those in solitary confinement. More than two-thirds had been put into facilities for non-violent offenses.

Adult inmates in California who’ve been held in solitary for years as a way to sever gang ties are currently suing the state, arguing that solitary’s corrosive psychological impact undermines their ability to re-enter society.

Against this backdrop, earlier this year the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a small Oakland, Calif., nonprofit that works with parents of juvenile offenders, approached state Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, about the possibility of sponsoring legislation that would put limits on solitary for juveniles.

Yee’s bill, introduced in February, called for licensed mental-health clinicians to evaluate minors placed in isolation within an hour’s time and then every four hours afterward. Staff would have to create intervention plans before putting any minor identified as suicidal in isolation. Staff would also need a supervisor’s written permission before isolating wards for more than 24 hours straight in a one-week period.

The regulations would have applied to state institutions, where mostly more serious or violent juvenile offenders — about 1,000 now — are held, as well as to county facilities, where many thousands more mostly lower-level wards are now housed.

“We spend so much money locking up kids,” said Jennifer Kim, a legislative advocate for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “Let’s divert some of that to make sure that we not exacerbating mental-health issues.”

Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the state Division of Juvenile Justice, strongly disputed the need for the bill, calling it a “solution looking for problem that doesn’t exist,” at least in state juvenile-offender facilities. The state’s three facilities are now under strict court orders, and treatment of offenders is monitored by outside auditors and highly prescribed, he said. “There is no solitary confinement,” Sessa said.

But Lina Roldan, a Southern California mother, says that in late 2010 her teenage son was put into isolation after using a plastic fork to try to cut his neck at a California state-run correctional facility in the city of Stockton. In response, she said, guards put the teen into a room she said wards called “the box” for 24 hours. Another time, Roldan said, her son was in isolation in a room for 48 hours straight. She claims he received no mental-health help.

“They waited until he cut his head open, hitting it against the wall, and then they sent him to a hospital,” she said in an interview.

Sessa said he couldn’t discuss the ward’s specific case. But he called Roldan’s characterization “untrue,” and said rules require wards to get mental-health assessments when they enter facilities and to benefit from frequent psychological aid if their condition requires it. “There is no ‘box,’ “he said. “This isn’t the Shawshank Redemption.”

In 2005, state juvenile facilities came under attack after an 18-year-old ward, Joseph Daniel Maldonado, hanged himself in the same youth facility where Roldan said her son was isolated in 2010. A state inspector general report, also in 2005, blamed staff for failing to respond to respond to Maldonado’s pleas for psychological help and for failing to enter his room quickly after knocks on his door went unanswered during guard rounds. The report revealed how Maldonado and other wards had been confined to their cells all day for eight weeks. The previous year, guards had been filmed punching and kicking wards.

For the safety of other wards and guards, Sessa said, guards do move to segregate offenders in their cells if they become violent or disruptive. Counselors are now required, he said, to immediately approach youths who’ve been segregated to try to get them talk through what might be causing outbursts. Wards showing any indication of suicidal tendencies can also be segregated in special cells, under close watch.

Sessa accused the Ella Baker Center of spreading “misinformation,” and of wrongly suggesting that California’s three state juvenile facilities — there used to be a dozen — remain as rife with scandalous practices as was alleged in lawsuits that led tocourt-ordered changes beginning in 2004.

“The courts are practically running the facilities,” he said.

Still, last year a state audit found nearly 250 violations of California’s state juvenile system’s guidelines, not regulations, against isolating wards for more than 21 hours straight.  Court orders require that 40 to 70 percent of wards’ waking hours are spent in constructive activities, said Sara Norman of the Prison Law Office, which sued state juvenile prisons.

Sessa did not contest the audit’s findings. But the violations, he said, largely involved a small number of wards with violent tendencies, some with gang affiliations.

Barry Krisberg, a criminal-justice expert at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, said he is more concerned now about the county facilities than the state institutions. “There could be whole wings where they could be spending days in confinement. Nobody knows,” said Krisberg, who has served as a monitor of court orders at state facilities.

Existing regulations that do govern counties are vague, Krisberg said, and give wide latitude for facility supervisors to set rules for isolating wards for up to 24 hours for a minor violation of facility rules, or longer for a major offense.

In April, as Yee’s bill went before the public safety committee, the Los Angeles Times published a spirited editorial that urged legislators to approve the measure. The Times called solitary confinement a practice that remains “as dark as ever” and stands in contrast to California’s progress in improving rehabilitation of young offenders. The editorial also singled out two Los Angeles Democrats who had abstained on a first round of voting on and pressed them to embrace the measure.


As debate on Yee’s bill began, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and juvenile-justice officials did not take a position. But law-enforcement unions and associations, representing state and county and local police, deputies and probation officers, weighed in against it.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the state prison guards’ union, summed up its opposition in testimony at a committee hearing and in a letter to legislators. “We recognize that many parties believed that solitary confinement was overused in the past” at state facilities, the guards said. However, the union said, court orders have produced reforms. Yee’s bill would “far exceed” those reforms and “compromise the programming of the ward population,” the guards said, as well as the safety of guards and other wards.

The prison guards are a powerful force at the state capitol. Their clout in Sacramento stretches back to the 1980s, when the union first became heavily involved in law-and-order campaigns. It financed a big chunk of the state’s 1994 landmark Three Strikes ballot initiative, which began filling prisons. The union has continued to enjoy a prominent role publicly and in negotiations among lawmakers over public safety reforms and correctional spending.  With the state facing lawsuits over overcrowded prisons and pressure to cut costs, the union has often offered its own “blueprints” for change.

“They’re the highest paid guards in the country,” said Krisberg of UC Berkeley. And even though the state’s fiscal crisis has required the union to accept hits in employee benefits, he said, “they got everything they wanted (at the capitol) this year.”

Krisberg said that local law enforcement is enjoying extra clout right now because the state, in cost-cutting reforms, is transferring responsibility for many adult state inmates to local control.

The California State Sheriff’s Association, one of those local interest groups, argued that the definition of solitary in Yee’s bill was too vague and would leave counties vulnerable to lawsuits and the cost of new training. The Peace Officers Research Association of California, with more than 63,000 members, said the bill “would put an additional burden on counties and raise the cost of housing juveniles.” The Chief Probation Officers of California, whose members are now responsible for most young offenders, added that “counties and state facilities do not have licensed mental health staff working 24/7 to perform this function.”

Complaints about costs are especially potent right now in California. The state’s fiscal problems have resulted in deep budget cuts that have chopped spending locally and statewide. This year, legislators have wrestled over how to bridge a $16 billion budget deficit.

Yee’s bill died before its costs were estimated as part of the legislative process. Kim of the Ella Baker Center said that mental-health evaluations shouldn’t be a cost problem given that taxpayers already spend $185,000 a year on each ward in state custody. Sessa didn’t disagree.

David Steinhart, director of the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program in the Bay Area and a longtime collaborator with staff officials on reforms, said county probation departments have more reason to be concerned about costs — but only to a point.

California’s counties are getting a “big state payout” as part of a dramatic juvenile-justice shift that legislators voted for in 2007. The idea was to start requiring that the state’s 58 counties take responsibility for most wards rather than the state. Community-based rehabilitation programs seemed to work better at less cost.

Legislators in 2007 gave counties $117,000 for each ward they took, plus $300 million in construction money. Counties have continued to split almost $100 million more a year from the state. This year Gov. Jerry Brown proposed distributing another $200 million to counties if legislators would authorize shutting down the last three state-run facilities and transfer all wards to local custody. Probation chiefs and corrections officers — even union teachers at state facilities — fought the idea, arguing counties were ill-prepared to take more offenders. Brown dropped the idea.

Mark Varela, Ventura County’s probation chief and the probation chiefs’ legislative chair, told the Center that his county actually could have handled the mental-health evaluations of wards that Yee’s bill required. Ventura, he said, is using various streams of state money to pay for a “crisis team” that probation can turn to in mental-health emergencies. That move was in line with the recommendations of a statewide task force last year.  But Varela conceded that other counties may be facing other kinds of fiscal problems.

Wielding power in Sacramento

The Ella Baker Center advocates say they can’t help but think that debate over proposals like theirs is clouded by the campaign-donations and high-priced lobbying game at the Capitol. Law-enforcement associations “always seem to seem to have unlimited resources to influence politicians,” Kim said.

To compete, the Ella Baker Center spent about $115,110 last year and through this past March on lobbying to push Yee’s solitary-confinement bill, among other criminal-justice proposals. At the same time, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association spent more than $421,511 lobbying on an array of bills. The Chief Probation Officers group also spent nearly $370,000 to push its view on the budget and other proposed measures, according to state lobbying records.

The correctional guards union has also given California politicians or committees more than $12.4 million in contributions since 2003, according to the National Institute on Money and State Politics.

On March 16, state records show, the guards union gave the California Democratic Party $60,000. On March 9, it gave the California Republican Party $15,000. And on May 30, it gave $10,000 to a newly minted California Black Political Action Committee, which is based in Los Angeles.

The three Democrats who voted for Yee’s bill and two who voted against it have all received donations from prison guards or other law-enforcement groups during their careers. But none have received more from the prison guards than Sen. Ron Calderon, Democrat of Los Angeles. He cast one of the votes against Yee’s bill after initially abstaining.

Between 2004 and 2010, Calderon received $14,050 in donations from the guards union. In March of this year, he reported a $3,900 donation pledged last July from the guards union, records show. The donation went to Calderon’s committee for a run at state controller in 2014.

Rocky Rushing, Calderon’s chief of staff, said Calderon’s vote had nothing to do with donations. “It’s not like that at all,” he said. “We were supportive of the intent of the legislation.”  The costs of mental-health evaluations of wards every four hours, which Yee’s bill required, would have been “astronomical,” Rushing said. Advocates refused to budge on this matter, he said. Kim of the Baker Center said she felt that delineating a specific number of hours was necessary or checks might not happen.

Sen. Curren Price, the other Los Angeles Democrat and committee member — who also abstained before voting against Yee’s bill — said in a statement that he considered Yee’s bill “a provocation” that could have “compromised safety inside juvenile facilities …by ignoring the concerns of rank-and-file personnel.”

Price, who is the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, additionally said the measure would have interfered with court-ordered improvements, and burdened counties. He’s “sympathetic to the issue,” however, and said he’s willing to consider alternatives to regulating solitary confinement of minors. The Ella Baker advocates, who submitted written testimony to Durbin’s office for the June 19 Congressional hearing, said they will try again to get strict, statewide regulations or to stop solitary confinement of juveniles.

Photo from Free Fahad.