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Why the National Juvenile Justice Network Is Embracing Anti‑Racism in Its Youth Work

It is time for youth justice reformers to stop and take stock of how we pursue justice.

The racial disparities that pervade our youth justice systems from beginning to end are not random occurrences. Rather, youth justice reformers can directly track the development of our justice policies to government control of populations largely seen as “other” by the white majority. As such, our work to shrink the system is insufficient if we do not fully confront the racist roots of the youth justice system itself.

Well before the first juvenile court was created at the turn of the 20th century, we used the court and prison system as a mechanism to perpetuate racism. During Reconstruction, our adult justice system was used as a means to extend slavery’s chains to freed black men who were picked up on newly passed vagrancy laws and other laws that comprised the “Black Codes” — criminal laws solely applicable to black citizens. These men were rented out to nearby coal mines and plantations under the forced labor of convict leasing programs.

This ability of our court and prison infrastructure to serve as a tool for the extension of slavery was enshrined in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which notably abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, “except as a punishment for crime.”

It's upon this history that in 1899 in Chicago white women, emerging from the progressive settlement house movement, which provided education and services for poor immigrants, created our country’s first juvenile court. The court was a response to the growing evidence of the abuses in the "houses of refuge" — essentially detention centers for poor and immigrant youth — and the use of the adult justice system for children.

These women believed that these poor children — largely immigrant youth — who were unschooled, unsupervised, filling the city’s streets and getting in trouble with the law — often precisely because of their poverty — should be treated in age-segregated courts that would provide the child and family with a guiding hand and instill in them white, middle-class values.

The definitions of misconduct that could land a child in court were broad and, pursuant to the noteworthy judicial precept of “parens patriae,” judges were able to usurp all parental control over the children appearing before them, allowing the judges to impose wide-ranging interventions. From the very beginning, black youth were overrepresented in these courts — a source of concern for some black advocates, who recognized that there were insufficient social supports in communities for black youth.

As a result, we created a system that was practically tailor-made to oppress and contain youth of color. We can see a court system that was grounded in an imperialistic view that white middle-class people had the knowledge and obligation to improve the lives of "other" (even "inferior") people, the understanding that the state knew better than families and was authorized to act in their stead and a promise of rehabilitation that was built upon community services that were lacking or nonexistent for black youth.

That today our system exhibits dramatic racial and ethnic disparities and is party to inhumane and unconstitutional abuses of youth should not, therefore, be surprising.

Jumping ahead to the 1970s, after the hard-won gains of the civil rights movement, we witnessed white politicians stirring up the public’s fear of crime to gain political points and white votes. They tapped into deep-seated, perhaps subconscious, concerns among white populations about the precariousness of their own supremacy in the face of legally protected civil rights for blacks. To this end, we saw a rise of “public safety” candidates who latched onto periodic increases in crime and mythic “super-predators,” enabling the subsequent cancerous growth of our justice system.

Over the last 45 years we have witnessed a never-ending war on drugs, unprecedented prison growth (often at the expense of public education), “three strikes and you’re out” laws, civil asset forfeiture, the annual charging of hundreds of thousands of youth in the adult system, the use of solitary confinement as default housing for prisoners, gang injunctions and databases and so much more.

So where does this bring us to today? Our youth justice systems exhibit intractable racial disparities at every decision-making point. This, in spite of the fact that youth of color and white youth self-report similar rates of offending.

And horrifyingly, our web of laws and community surveillance have led to fully one-third of adult black men being under some sort of court control (prison, probation, parole). We see our justice system binding itself to the immigration enforcement bureaucracy by collaborating with ICE to enable increased deportations of immigrants, and we see police officers stationed in schools, facilitating the arrest and court-processing of “disruptive” youth of color. After a century-plus of juvenile court development, our youth justice system has become a well-tuned tool for social control of black and brown young people.

While substantial advances and reforms have been made in youth justice in recent years — including dramatic drops in youth incarceration (there are fully 50 percent fewer youth held in youth prisons than a decade ago), greater awareness of the dangers of the school-to-prison pipeline and an increase in local and state efforts to stem this tide, fewer youth transferred to the adult court and a decrease in the use of solitary confinement — significant racial disparities in the system persist.

It is still youth of color who wear electronic monitoring devices, who get arrested at school and who sit in lock-up. In fact, in many instances, the rate of racial disparities has increased as the overall numbers of youth in the system has decreased. It is important to note here, that while youth of color bear the brunt of our system’s yoke, there are other groups of marginalized people who suffer as well. Youth who are LGBTQI, disabled, girls, First Nations’ people and others are disproportionately ensnared in and maltreated by our youth justice systems.

So what now? For we who seek justice, what is our path forward?

If the roots, trunk and branches of our youth justice system have grown out of the forces of white supremacy, then it is white supremacy that must be confronted. And by white supremacy, I do not mean the people who chant Nazi slogans in support of Confederate statues, although they clearly are white supremacists. I mean the white supremacy that lives in the structures of our society, in our organizations and in ourselves.

It is white supremacist culture that allows the implicit bias against youth and adults of color to which we all fall prey. It is white supremacist culture that reinforces the power imbalances that determines who gets funded, who serves as executive directors of our nonprofits, who speaks at conferences and who informs our policies.

What are we doing right now to dismantle these power structures in how we seek change? How do we run our organizations? Who are our leaders? Who are our staff? Have we partnered with and supported youth and families who are most negatively affected by our youth justice systems? Have we connected with and supported related movements for racial justice? Who holds us accountable? These and other questions should form the basis of our work ahead.

Yes, we must and we will continue to pursue policies that shrink our system and make what remains fair and effective. But this work — difficult as it may be — is insufficient if our goal is true justice. We must also simultaneously pursue our work in anti-racist ways. There is no simple recipe for a transformed society; it’s a journey that we engage in individually and collectively. So, let’s begin.

Sarah Bryer is executive director and president of the National Juvenile Justice Network.

Kids in Isolation: Locked Away in Dermott

Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

Around four months ago, Benjamin Knuckles’ 16-year-old son tried to escape from the Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center. As punishment, he was driven up the road to the Dermott Juvenile Correctional Facility, a nearby facility for 18- to 21-year-olds, and placed alone in a single-cell unit. He remained confined there for more than 24 hours.

“It’s supposed to be a treatment center,” Knuckles said. “As far as I’m concerned, my son is not in treatment. He’s in jail. That’s the bottom line, he’s just locked up. I’m the one who turned him in to the police. I was trying to save my son. I regret it every day. Now all I’ve done is turn him into more of a criminal. He ain’t done nothing but learned to be locked up.”

The two facilities at Dermott are among eight juvenile lockup facilities overseen by the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services, all of which are intended to be rehabilitative rather than punitive. Scott Tanner, state juvenile ombudsman at the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, noted the practice in Dermott that Knuckles’ son experienced in a recent letter to DYS director Betty Guhman that expressed concern about the use and oversight of isolation at DYS facilities. Tanner described children being confined at the Correctional Facility in cells for “indeterminate periods with ill-defined supports and services.”

In one extreme case last year, a 17-year-old youth at Dermott was confined in isolation for 23-24 hours per day for a period totaling more than 90 days, according to records examined by Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that does regular observations at the juvenile lockups. More typically, youths would spend a day or a few days confined, according to DRA observers, let out only to shower and use the bathroom.

The practice of confining someone alone to a cell or room has many names — isolation, room confinement, segregation, seclusion, restrictive housing, solitary confinement — and definitions can vary. Tanner’s letter notes the definition of isolation used by a toolkit developed by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators: “any time a youth is physically and/or socially isolated for punishment or administrative purposes.” Youth advocates say that the use of isolation in juvenile facilities should be strictly limited, arguing that the practice is counterproductive, disrupts education and therapy services that facilities are required to provide, and can potentially be dangerous. According to federal data, more than half of suicides in such facilities occur while youths are isolated alone in a room. “It has a detrimental effect on a youth’s treatment, education, physical health and mental health,” DRA executive director Tom Masseau said.

The two facilities at Dermott, along with five other juvenile lockup facilities, were abruptly turned over to direct state control in January after efforts by the state to contract them out to a new vendor were blocked in the legislature late last year. The governor announced in August that the state would solicit contractors and they would be placed back in private control as soon as next July.

The Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center, the eighth and largest facility, is currently run by a for-profit company — Tanner’s letter, as well as emails he sent throughout the summer, also raised concerns about room confinement at that facility. The communications were acquired from the Public Defender Commission by a Freedom of Information Act request; Tanner declined to comment for this story. The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network previously reported on the practice of room confinement at AJATC, which typically occurs in a building described by one youth as “like the prison.”

Since the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network first asked DYS officials about isolation in May, the division has made efforts to streamline practices and standards around room confinement at all facilities, state officials said.

“We can’t deny that things in the past have been done, behaviors and management practices that had we been more involved in the day-to-day running probably wouldn’t have continued,” said DHS spokeswoman Brandi Hinkle. “Since we have taken over seven of the facilities, it’s been very eye-opening.”

According to DRA, the practices they observed at Dermott continued after the DYS took over the facilities. But DYS officials said that the division has established clearer protocols at Dermott over the last few months in order to limit the frequency and duration of isolation. They said that while youths at Dermott may “perhaps” have been confined for days at a time without adequate services previously, that is not the current practice.

The DYS relies on American Correctional Association protocols for the facilities it oversees. ACA standards limit room confinement for juveniles to five days, stating that “the time a juvenile spends in disciplinary confinement is proportionate to the offense committed,” and establish parameters for administrative review. The DYS does not have an official policy on isolation; a policy was drafted more than two years ago, but, despite urging from youth advocates, it has never been promulgated. The lack of an official policy has caused confusion and inconsistent practices at facilities, Masseau said.

Nevertheless, that draft policy — which discourages isolation lasting longer than four hours but leaves open the possibility of confinement lasting up to five days — is used as a set of guidelines by which the DYS expects facilities to abide. Though there is still no timeline to promulgate it, on Aug. 18, Amy Webb, chief communications officer at the DHS, wrote in an email, “DYS is making the [draft policy] standard at all facilities.”

Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas

In his letter to Guhman, Tanner called for data tracking — in line with national standards for juvenile justice — to ensure best practices around the use of isolation and enable more intensive monitoring and review. The DYS does not track aggregate data on room confinement and was unable to provide information about how often the practice has been used at Dermott, but DRA observers said it has been fairly common.

The practice of moving kids who commit infractions at the Dermott Treatment Center to the correctional facility in order to confine them in single-cell units there raised an additional red flag, Masseau said: the placement of younger youths at a facility mandated by the state to house 18- to 21-year-olds. Asked whether this was a concern, Webb wrote, “Determined on a case-by-case basis.”

In some cases, a room where an older resident normally sleeps has been used as a cell to put a younger child in isolation. DRA observers have seen older youths with their bedding dragged into a common area, where they sleep for the duration of the younger child’s stay in isolation. Meanwhile, isolation has also been used for the 18- to 21-year-old youths at the correctional facility; in that case, they would typically be confined to their regularly assigned rooms.

At one DRA observation this year, several younger children were confined in isolation in rooms at the correctional facility, and the lights in these rooms were turned out in the middle of the day so that the children were confined in darkness. Staffers told DRA observers that the children were napping, but the observers could see them through the slit in the door, staring back at them in the dark, wide awake. Asked about such a practice, Webb said that while it “perhaps” happened in the past, it was not happening now. “We are not OK with that approach,” she said.

Before the DYS takeover in January, the nonprofit South Arkansas Youth Services ran the facilities at Dermott. Last year, one youth was placed into room confinement for a period totaling more than 90 days. The youth, who had a disability, did not receive educational instruction or programming, according to a letter sent by DRA in August 2016. According to logs pulled by DRA, the youth was isolated for 23-24 hours per day; some days he got recreation time out of the cell, some days he did not. In a response letter, South Arkansas Youth Services defended the practice of room confinement and disputed the accuracy of DRA’s information.

“He was identified as being violent,” said Marq Golden, the DYS assistant director for residential programs. “They made several attempts where they tried to move him back and he was still identified as violent. They provided him services [while confined at the correctional facility].”

While Masseau said that a situation involving near total isolation over three months was an outlier, DRA staffers both this year and in previous years have observed room confinement at Dermott lasting for significant periods of time. Youths put into isolation would often sleep in the cell overnight, Masseau said, sometimes for multiple nights. “We’ve seen them up there for as little as a few hours, but the usual is going to be between one night and four nights,” he said. “If it happens on a Friday, they almost always keep them over the weekend up there.” Youths given this punishment have typically been in the room the entire time, with little to no services provided, let out only to use the restroom or shower (and not necessarily let out to shower every day).

Webb said that this description of room confinement “perhaps” happened previously, but is not happening currently. The DYS has now implemented an approach, she said, in which staff members at Dermott call on-call DYS staffers at the central office to notify them of the decision to use room confinement.

“Our staff has been told not to simply say OK, but to have a more substantive discussion about this decision to ensure it is not being done out of anger or irritation and to ensure youth are confined for the shortest amount of time possible to address the issue,” Webb said.

Webb said that DYS facilities, including Dermott, should now be following the draft policy in terms of what services are provided to youths who are put in room confinement. Following ACA protocols, the draft policy states, “Residents must be afforded living conditions and privileges as the general population.” Asked specifically about what sorts of education, therapy, recreation or other services youths in room confinement receive at Dermott, the DYS did not provide any additional information.

Room confinement on site has been much rarer at facilities other than AJATC and the two at Dermott, according to DRA observers, likely because most lack highly secure single-cell rooms. However, they may use mechanical restraints in response to major infractions. According to DRA observers, at least one facility, at Lewisville, has placed shackled youths outdoors for hours at a time, regardless of weather, as punishment for severe misbehaviors. Webb said that “placing restraints on youth and placing them outdoors … is unacceptable and that was made very clear to staff back in March. That is one of the things we learned was happening once we took over the day-to-day operations, and it is not an approach or technique that we approve.” Webb added that the DYS prefers alternative de-escalation interventions rather than using mechanical restraints at all, and next month the division will commence training all staff on safer crisis intervention and behavior management techniques.

Facilities may also remove a youth from the site to be temporarily placed for a few days in one of five county-run juvenile detention centers with which the state has agreements — a practice referred to as a “timeout.” In that case, the youth could be confined to a cell at one of the JDCs, which operate under a standard that allows room confinement for up to 23 hours per day if the youth is deemed a safety or security risk. Golden said that JDCs should follow the same expectations that the DYS had for its own facilities in terms of room confinement and noted that the DYS Quality Assurance team does conduct some oversight, but added, “We have agreements with them, but we don’t necessarily tell them exactly what they have to do.”

According to Tanner’s Aug. 23 letter, there were 11 youths housed in JDCs due to behavioral timeouts. The strategy of using JDCs to separate youths who commit behavioral infractions comes with pitfalls, Tanner wrote. “Youth placed in isolation, especially in a county detention center, can be subjected to revocation of privileges such as reduced family visitation and limited access to educational programming and clinical services,” he wrote. “Youth placed in detention centers in Arkansas can also be subject or witness to pepper spray.” Youth subjected to JDC timeouts also tend to end up having longer stays at the DYS treatment centers, Tanner wrote. “All of those identified consequences are counter to the interests of the youth we serve, to the communities to which they will return, and to the taxpayers of Arkansas.”

In a 2015 report, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators advised that “isolating youths … as a consequence for negative behavior undermines the rehabilitative goals of youth corrections.” In his letter, Tanner noted that the CJCA report “summarizes research demonstrating that isolation … actually has negative public safety consequences, does not reduce violence and likely increases recidivism.” In addition to better data tracking, Tanner suggested a number of strategies to reduce the use of isolation, including developing clearer policies for the use and monitoring of the practice, developing alternative behavior management options and responses, and conducting additional training and development for staff toward policies and principles regarding the use of isolation.

In the interim, Tanner wrote, “DYS must improve its monitoring and accountability when youth are removed from the general population.” He proposed that any removal for disciplinary purposes, especially from a school setting, should be approved by the DYS; that each individual case of separation from the general population should be monitored, including the reasons for the removal, its duration and what interventions were attempted; that the division needed to better assess and monitor the conditions of rooms or cells where children were confined in isolation; and that the division needed to analyze data on room confinement to identify patterns and ensure best practices.

“These practices must be governed by strong policy and effective monitoring,” Tanner wrote. “We, as a state, are failing at both.”

In an accompanying email, Tanner wrote that he hoped that “by further examination of these and other issues, DHS will be better positioned in determining what it needs to ask in its upcoming [request for proposal] process” in contracting out the seven facilities currently under direct state control.

“Broadly speaking, running the facilities has taught us an important lesson that we have taken to heart,” Webb said. “Once these go back out on contract, our monitoring needs to be more robust to ensure policies and procedures are being followed. We are committed to doing that.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.

The Harsh Conditions of Prison Create Mental Illness And Must Be Reformed

When I first came home from serving a very long prison sentence, my greatest concern was how deeply that dreary place affected me mentally. Of course, I thought I was normal, but I was uncertain because of the toll I had witnessed the cruel environment take on so many men.

I have reached the conclusion, based on my 15-year imprisonment from age 20 to 35, that many incarcerated persons develop mental illness because of the subhuman conditions they are held captive in.

By now many of us know the numbers and have read statistic after statistic that attempt to explain how mental illness runs rampant throughout U.S. prisons. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 64 percent of local jail inmates, 56 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners have symptoms of serious mental illnesses. In 2015 The Atlantic reported 55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, and the numbers goes on and on.

What’s always interesting to me is that most people assume that the men and women in prison who are mentally ill arrived there with some form of pre-existing mental condition, attributing these numbers to inadequate health care and disgraceful treatment of those with mental illness. While that may be true in some cases, what most people on the outside don’t understand is how the dismal, subhuman prison environment can literally drive you crazy. The inhumane conditions are intentionally designed to sedate the mind, dull the senses and pacify prisoners into a comatose state.

One of the damnedest challenges surviving prison as a whole person is the relentless battle to maintain your sanity in a cold, grey concrete and steel sensory deprivation chamber. A chamber filled with people who could not care less if you lived or died: people convicted of being thieves, rapists, killers, white supremacists, black nationalists, child molesters, pimps, meth-heads, crackheads, dope fiends, prostitutes, scheming and conniving con men and a wild, lawless, heartless, fatherless, desensitized, lost generation of young men.

These dungeons, labeled “correctional facilities,” are supposed to “rehabilitate” convicted persons and prepare them to return to society. They are designed to break you. How, under these extreme circumstances, do we expect a person to maintain their sanity? If we dull an incarcerated person’s senses in order to control the situation, how on earth can we expect anyone to come out whole?

And then there’s segregation: a prison within a prison. It is its own monster, and the intense isolation can drive a person to the brink of their sanity. I was once forced to spend 30 days in an isolation chamber in segregation in a maximum-security prison. It was sealed with a steel door so heavy it trapped the air inside and was so soundproof that I might as well have been deaf. When the 30 days ended and the prison guards opened my isolation chamber, the stale, dank air that rushed into my cell from the gallery was so refreshing that the breeze smelling like paint and steel had the audacity to be caressing. All sounds, smells and light hit me at the same time, giving me a sensory overload so strong it made me dizzy and nauseated.

This is not rehabilitation. This is torture. And this subhuman treatment is happening in prisons across the United States. How much of this inhumane treatment can a sane person take before it begins to affect him mentally and emotionally?

Truthfully, because of how intricately prisons are designed for sensory deprivation, I believe that the very environment itself causes great depression that leads to other mental issues. There is much talk and a movement toward reform, but how can an institution designed for punishment be reformed when its entire infrastructure is intended to depress the mind and dull the senses?

If our goal as a decent society is to rehabilitate, then we must oblige our elected officials to abandon lazy, twisted and medieval imprisonment practices. They must be urged to review the humane 21st-century ideas that greatly reduce the number of people with mental illness the physical prison environment produces.

Having paid their debt to society, people, many of whom are family members, are reentering our communities needing a real opportunity to be productive. However, they tremendously struggle to do so because their mental faculties have been intentionally aggravated by being forced to survive in a high-stress, abnormal world devoid of human sensitivity. Prisons, as they currently exist, must be abolished.

Omar Yamini is the executive director of Determined to Be Upright, a nonprofit that helps youth identify and deflect harmful influences. His book is “What's Wrong With You! What You, Your Children and Our Students Need to Know About: My 15 Year Imprisonment from Age 20-35.”

Arkansas Kids in Isolation: Locked Away in Alexander

Arkansas Nonprofit News Network

This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.

In April, a 15-year-old boy housed at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center spent the entire day alone in a small cell. Michael (the names of juveniles in this story have been changed to protect their anonymity) was put in a hold by a guard and taken out of his classroom at the facility's school. As he repeatedly said, "I am not resisting" and "no aggression" — a phrase used at AJATC to indicate compliance — Michael was brought across campus to Building 19.

Once used as a maximum-security facility to house a program for serious juvenile offenders, part of Building 19 is now used to temporarily segregate youths from the regular population at AJATC, in some cases confining them in single-cell units. Michael was immediately locked in one of these units, empty other than a metal bed with a mat on it and a wool comforter. Typically, he said, youths confined to a cell in Building 19 may only be let out to use the bathroom. This time, he was not let out at all from around noon until nighttime, when he was taken back to his regular living quarters.

"I was in my cell the whole time," he said. "I was calling the staff's name and they wouldn't let me out. I had to pee in my dinner tray after I got done eating."

Rite of Passage, the Nevada-based, for-profit company that contracts with the state to run the facility, declined to respond to specific stories like Michael's, citing privacy concerns.

AJATC, located near Alexander, houses more than 100 youths. It is the largest of eight juvenile lockup facilities in the state overseen by the Division of Youth Services, part of the Arkansas Department of Human Services. These facilities, known as treatment centers, are intended to provide therapy and rehabilitation rather than being punitive, and are required to provide education that meets state standards. AJATC has a long history of trouble, including mistreatment of children in its care. When Rite of Passage was brought in as a new contractor in 2016, it promised a fresh start, telling the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, "We're not interested in running jailhouses. We're interested in running schoolhouses."

According to multiple youths, former staffers and others, confining a youth alone in a cell in Building 19 or in another room on campus has been regularly used at AJATC as a disciplinary response to nonviolent misbehavior in class, as well as for more serious misconduct, with the youth sometimes staying there for much of the day. If a youth is deemed to be a danger, the practice is sometimes used for a period of multiple days. According to Rite of Passage, the facility ended the practice of room confinement as a response to classroom misbehavior in June. Under current policy, the company's attorneys said, room confinement is only used for certain major infractions, for a maximum of 72 hours. They said that youths in room confinement still have access to services such as education and therapy.

In a letter in August to Division of Youth Services director Betty Guhman, Scott Tanner, the state juvenile ombudsman at the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, raised alarms about the practice and oversight of isolation in the state's juvenile lockup facilities. "These practices must be governed by strong policy and effective monitoring," Tanner wrote. "We, as a state, are failing at both." Tanner cited research that for juveniles, "isolation ... actually has negative public safety consequences, does not reduce violence and likely increases recidivism."

"It's a very risky, dangerous practice," said Jennifer Lutz, an attorney for the Center for Children's Law and Policy in Washington, D.C., and the campaign manager for Stop Solitary for Kids, a partnership between four national juvenile justice reform organizations. The research, Lutz said, shows that putting youths in such situations can cause serious psychological and emotional harm, exacerbate mental illness or post-traumatic stress responses and increase risk of self-harm. She pointed to federal data published by the U.S. Department of Justice that found that more than half of suicides in juvenile facilities occur while youths are isolated alone in a room, and more than 60 percent of youths who commit suicide in custody had a history of being subjected to the practice. There is no evidence, Lutz said, that isolation improves the safety and security of juvenile lockup institutions, and may actually increase violent behavior.

Tanner's letter follows months of communication with the DYS and Rite of Passage staff in which he expressed concerns about the use of room confinement at AJATC. In emails, Tanner described the practice as "essentially social isolation." The communications were acquired from the Public Defender Commission by a Freedom of Information Act request; Tanner declined to comment for this story.

Referencing one youth with severe behavioral problems, Tanner wrote, "Finding a way to effectively engage him is key. Keeping him locked in a room is only adding fuel to his rage." Tanner repeatedly expressed the concern that Rite of Passage's internal policies were not addressing the practices he had witnessed. "There is nothing in this policy that adequately describes what I have observed of youth being placed in a locked unit, in a single room cell behind a locked door away from the general milieu," he wrote.

An email Tanner sent in August shows that he attempted to access individual records of youths he had seen confined in Building 19 during recent visits to the facility — two of them for longer than 72 hours — to assess how Building 19 was functioning in practice, including whether youths sent there were being provided appropriate education and therapy.

Tanner found few answers, the correspondence indicates. The records were months out of date or nonexistent. (Tanner wrote that these gaps in the records "caused concern beyond my initial scope of inquiry.") There was no information about what caused youths to be sent to Building 19, the amount of time they spent in room confinement or what services were provided to them. In some cases, despite the fact that these youths were assigned disciplinary room confinement in July, the most recent incident report on file was in May; in other cases, there was no incident report at all. One appeared to have therapist progress notes before and after the period of confinement, but none during. Another, identified as a student with special education needs, only had a note indicating that the student was not present in group therapy due to being placed in Building 19.

Although Rite of Passage operates AJATC, the DYS is ultimately responsible for the youths at the facility. DYS facilities abide by a protocol in accordance with the American Correctional Association, but the division itself does not currently have an official policy on room confinement; a policy was drafted more than two years ago, but it has never been promulgated.

In his letter to Guhman, Tanner called for data tracking of room confinement — in line with national standards for juvenile justice — to ensure best practices around the use of isolation and enable more intensive monitoring and review. Currently, DYS does not track aggregate data on room confinement and was unable to provide information about how often the practice is used at AJATC or other locations. Any situation that results in room confinement should be noted narratively on an incident report sent to the DYS, but the practice itself is not tracked in the agency's data system.

"The lack of data collected by DYS has been an ongoing issue," said Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that does regular observations at the juvenile lockups.

"We are having a number of conversations about changes that should happen within the Division of Youth Services and reviewing all policies, and that may be among changes we make," said Amy Webb, chief communications officer at the Department of Human Services. "But because there is not a separate tracking report, that does not mean that we don't monitor this. All incident reports are reviewed by our staff."

Thus far in 2017, DYS staff have yet to identify a single improper use of room confinement requiring further investigation or review.

***

The practice of confining someone alone to a cell or room has many names — isolation, room confinement, segregation, seclusion, restrictive housing, solitary confinement — and each term can have varying definitions.

"One of the major problems with advocacy in this area is there isn't one single nationally accepted definition of solitary confinement," Lutz said. "In the juvenile justice system, that term sets off alarm bells for the folks who work in facilities and run those agencies because they're concerned that it's associated with harsher adult practices." Stop Solitary for Kids defines solitary confinement as "involuntary placement of a youth alone in a cell, room, or other area for any reason other than as a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate physical harm."

Rite of Passage objected to terms such as "isolation," preferring the phrase "room time." The company also objected to referring to a cell in which a youth is confined alone as a "solitary" room. By email, Rite of Passage's legal counsel wrote, "solitary confinement and isolation are not practices used by RoP in its operations at AJATC. ... There are serious and negative connotations attached to both of those terms, none of which apply to RoP's treatment of the youth in its care." While youth are sometimes locked alone in a cell in Building 19, Rite of Passage noted that staffers and other youths would be present in the building. A youth confined in Building 19 would still have access to normal programing, such as education, recreation and therapy, the company said. Asked specifically what that programming would entail in the context of room confinement, Rite of Passage did not respond.

"The purpose of the removal and placement of the youth in Building 19 is not to isolate them, but to change their environment based upon clinical or behavioral program needs," Rite of Passage attorneys wrote in an email. They described Building 19 as "a dorm-like setting but with enhanced staffing."

BUILDING 19

Some youths housed at AJATC have a different view. "It's like the prison," said Jason, another 15-year-old resident. Both Jason and Michael, the teenager put in a cell in April, said they had been confined in a cell that had blood and urine clearly visible on the floor and wall.

"It's everywhere," Jason said. "It was just disgusting in there." When the boys complained, they were moved to another cell, but they said that nothing was immediately done to clean up the problem cell. Jason said that if he winds up in a cell in Building 19, he just tries to sleep. "There ain't nothing else to do," he said.

Michael said that in March, over a period of two weeks, he spent at least five hours a day confined to a cell in Building 19 as punishment for refusing to have his hair cut. He was exploring Islam and associated letting his hair grow out with his interest in the faith. On school days, he said, he would be brought to the cell after classes, from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; on weekends, he would be confined to the cell all day. Although Rite of Passage declined to comment on specific stories, it disputed that a youth would ever have been subjected to room confinement for refusing a haircut.

The boys said that over the past year, the most common use of room confinement came in response to classroom misbehavior (unless a more serious infraction is involved, that practice has now been discontinued after a policy change in June, according to Rite of Passage). Students who were seriously disruptive in class might be sent to an in-school suspension classroom. If they continued to misbehave in ISS, they could be sent to Building 19, where they could be confined to a cell. Rite of Passage said that aggregate data on the number of times room confinement was used in response to such scenarios was not available.

In a telephone interview in May, Michael Cantrell, executive director of the southeastern region for Rite of Passage, acknowledged this practice, which he described as a last resort, but denied that the purpose was punitive. He described it as an effort to remove kids from an audience. "I wouldn't call it punishment. That's draconian," he said. "It's a space that kids can go for an hour, two hours, chill out, relax, get themselves together and get back to class."

However, a pair of therapists who left their positions at AJATC earlier this year (before the June policy change), said that room confinement was used as a standard punishment for acting up in class, and that once a student was taken to Building 19, he would generally not return for the rest of the school day.

"They absolutely used it as a punitive measure," one therapist said. "If you piss off staff members or act a fool in school, you go to Building 19. If you get kicked out of class, out of ISS, you go directly to Building 19 and you sit in a cell all day. You don't really come out except to go to the bathroom. Then whenever school is over, group [therapy] is over, everything is done, then you go back to your cottage [the regular living quarters] and you would typically have early bedtime. They'll bring you dinner to your room but you'll stay in your room the rest of the night."

Sometimes, the former AJATC therapists said, guards would pull the bed mat out of the cell in Building 19 so that youths only have the metal frame of the cot to sit or lie on. The therapists said that, during their time working for Rite of Passage, Building 19 was overused. "If you have a kid who is being extremely aggressive and violent, then to calm down is not necessarily a bad thing," one said. "I think that is excessive when you don't allow the kid to recover, when they can't go back to school for the rest of the day. If this happens at 8 o'clock in the morning, you're SOL."

As with the statements made by the youths above, Rite of Passage, through its legal counsel, declined to respond directly to any specific allegations. "Those who work from the standpoint of misinformation, rumors and inadequate information harm the process and ability to keep all safe," the company's attorneys wrote.

Removing a youth from the classroom to confine him in Building 19 or elsewhere could create a federal legal issue under the Individuals with Disabilities Act if he has a disability, Masseau said. "If [the misbehavior] is a manifestation of disabilities, you can't just change his placement because he's acting up. You need to put in behavior supports or modify his programming in whatever way allows the child to obtain their free and appropriate public education."

"If a youth has a disability the Special Ed department will ensure his or her needs are met, and may include the use of services within Building 19," Rite of Passage attorneys stated.

***

Whatever name it goes by, youth advocates argue that room confinement should be strictly limited in juvenile facilities, and even short periods of confinement can be counterproductive and harmful for children. "It has a detrimental effect on a youth's treatment, education, physical health and mental health," Masseau said. "Every national standard I've read says that it should never be used as a punitive measure, that it should only be used when the kid's actively a danger to himself or others, and even then calls for frequent review. It's all geared toward minimizing the amount of time a kid is removed from the normal environment."

"It's not helping kids emerge from facilities better equipped than when they entered," Lutz said. "Unfortunately, it's been the tool that's been used for so long that staff and facilities can no longer see how ineffective it is."

Regulation on the issue of room confinement for juveniles in the state has long been murky. DHS administrative code, which has the force of law, contains more stringent limits than what has been the practice at some facilities ("it's unclear who, if anyone, actually enforces this code," Masseau said).

While the DYS has no official policy on the use of room confinement, the division did develop a policy in 2015 at the prompting of Disability Rights Arkansas. Although it was never promulgated, Marq Golden, the DYS assistant director for residential programs, said the draft policy nonetheless served as a baseline set of expectations for both outside vendors and state staff.

Golden also said that the DYS requires facilities to comply with American Correctional Association (ACA) standards. Those standards limit room confinement for juveniles to five days, stating that "the time a juvenile spends in disciplinary confinement is proportionate to the offense committed," and establish parameters for administrative review. "They have to be accredited by ACA so that kind of secures us in that aspect," Golden said. Although the contract requires it within one year of the start date, Rite of Passage, which took over in August 2016, has not yet secured ACA accreditation for its management of AJATC; it is expected to be accredited by April 2018.

The DYS draft policy notes the five-day maximum on room confinement for juveniles set by ACA standards, but states that even emergency isolations (a term that is not defined) should generally be limited to four hours. It leaves open the possibility of disciplinary room confinement, but suggests it should be brief, without specifying precisely what that means.

"Our bottom line is this: Room confinement should not be done out of anger or simple irritation," Webb said. "It should be done out of necessity."

However, Rite of Passage policy on the duration of room confinement is markedly different than the DYS' recommendation that room confinement typically shouldn't exceed four hours. The company's current policy is that room confinement will last a minimum of four hours and a maximum of 72 hours, Rite of Passage counsel said. The company could not provide any information about the average duration of such room confinements or how often they lasted more than 24 hours.

Golden said that the DYS draft policy was "written broadly to address a wide variety of scenarios, and those vendors such as RoP have to address the protocols beneath that to address those types of scenarios. When you write a policy like this, it is written more as a general guideline and then those who abide within that have to create the specific rules."

Masseau said it was necessary for the DYS to promulgate an official policy on room confinement and isolation. "The failure of the Division to do so has resulted in confusion and inconsistent practice throughout the facilities," he wrote in an email. "Staff are untrained in the appropriate response methods in the event a youth needs a time out, often triggering further incident. Without an official policy, there is no requirement that the staff and facility officials follow generally accepted guidelines to protect the health and safety of the youth. And in turn, there is no method for enforcement of or accountability for those staff who deviate from those generally accepted guidelines, because that is all that they are — guidelines."

Webb said that the DYS "recognizes that it needs to be promulgated and we are in the process of getting that going." Asked about a timeline, Golden said, "I don't know a specific timeline within a year."

National standards are generally moving away from punitive isolation practices. "In very rare situations, a juvenile may be separated from others as a temporary response to behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to any person," a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice report recommended. "Even in such cases, the placement should be brief, designed as a 'cool down' period, and done only in consultation with a mental health professional." The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, states that even in an emergency situation, isolation should never exceed four hours; at that point, a youth should be transferred to a mental health facility or medical unit. A 2015 report developed by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) advised that "isolating youths ... as a consequence for negative behavior undermines the rehabilitative goals of youth corrections."

Ron Angel, who served as director of the DYS from 2007 to 2013, said he should have discontinued the use of Building 19 (at that time used to house sex offenders) altogether. "I should have gone ahead and done away with that concept, because it was prison," Angel said. "You can quote me on that — if I could go back in time, I would shut that building down. Or remodel it into something that was more of a therapeutic setting." Angel said that he tried to minimize the use of room confinement as anything more than a cool-down period of less than an hour. "I don't think a prison cell is right for young kids, and I never did," he said.

***

Asked in May whether Rite of Passage had any internal policies or protocols governing under what circumstances room confinement is used as a response, Cantrell said, "There's not really a policy that spells that out, because every kid is so different. You start trying to put XYZ [triggers room confinement], then what happens is I have a reporter saying, 'Well, the kid didn't do XYZ.'"

Asked whether there were policies or protocols governing how long a youth would be confined in isolation, Cantrell said, "It really depends on their behaviors and when they're calm and ready to rejoin the program. ... Generally, our goal is that the kid is not there more than 24 hours. I mean, that's our goal. Has there been an instance or two where that's been longer? Yes."

When the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network reached out to Cantrell again in July, he declined to speak by telephone, and Rite of Passage's attorneys provided written responses to further questions.

It was in the intervening month that Tanner, the juvenile ombudsman, began to express concern about Building 19 and room confinement at AJATC.

'WE, AS A STATE, ARE FAILING': That's what juvenile ombudsman Scott Tanner wrote to DYS director Betty Guhman (above) on the division's oversight of juvenile isolation.

Golden, the DYS official, soon arranged a meeting with Rite of Passage, on July 10. "I provided them the [draft policy] and informed them that they would have to follow that," he said. "I told them that they could not use that facility in that manner if they were using it improperly. They were in agreement."

On July 25, Tanner wrote in an email, "Rite of Passage has yet to furnish adequate policy supporting these practices ... This practice, as we discussed, exposes the state and your program to risk. ... I will continue to broad stroke this intervention as social isolation and an unacceptable practice until it is demonstrated to me to be supported by adequate policy, practice and monitoring." Golden responded to Tanner, "I am in agreement that they should be drafting an internal policy."

On Aug. 5, Rite of Passage provided Tanner with a June-dated policy on in-school interventions that contains the following language in bold text: "Being removed from school and placed in the cottage/building 19 DOES NOT warrant a student being locked in his or her room all day." However, the newer policy does not appear to otherwise provide clear parameters for the use of room confinement; Tanner later wrote that none of the policies provided address some of the practices he has observed at AJATC.

Attorneys for the company told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network that as of June 20, Rite of Passage no longer used room confinement in response to misbehavior in class and ISS and described that practice as a holdover from G4S, the for-profit company that previously ran AJATC. Rite of Passage, which took over in August 2016, eventually determined that the practice "lacked the consistency and disciplinary value RoP sought to provide its youth." Company policy, according to Rite of Passage counsel, now dictates that room confinement at AJATC can only be used as a response in four situations: when the youth is a danger to self or others (including fights), destruction of property, committing a class A felony, or possession of harmful contraband. It could also be used if a youth requests room confinement "due to emotional stressors."

Although Rite of Passage does not keep aggregate data, it estimated that over the course of a typical month in the past year, less than 6 percent of the AJATC population — around half a dozen youths — were sent to room confinement in response to an emergency situation. The current policy described by Rite of Passage could allow for the use of room confinement in certain situations that do not involve immediate risk of harm to self or others; Rite of Passage did not provide an estimate of how often it has been used in such situations.

"We know that when young people are in isolation, there's lots of needs that aren't being met," Lutz said. "They're sent to facilities by judges to receive rehabilitation and treatment. Maybe they're there for drug and alcohol treatment, or mental health counseling. Every minute in solitary is a minute they're not getting that treatment.

“Many of these kids have serious educational deficits, and they have a constitutional right to an appropriate education. They're not getting it when they're in solitary confinement. What we often see — in a best-case scenario — assignments are slid under the door, and it's come and collected later."

Rite of Passage did not respond to specific questions about how the daily schedule or programing would operate for youths in room confinement. (For example: Would a student work on schoolwork alone in the cell, or interact with his regular teacher?) "Youth in reassessment adhere to the same daily schedule as the rest of the youth on campus," Rite of Passage counsel said. "Building 19 has a schedule that supports school, meals and programs."

It's time for facilities to develop alternative approaches to locking kids in a cell, Lutz said. "Imagine you heard about a neighbor who locked their 15-year-old with mental health issues in a small linen closet for six hours and then removed them," she said. "No. 1, would you think that would solve anything? And No. 2, that would be child abuse. Why is it any different for these kids? It's harmful, it's damaging, it's abusive, and it doesn't solve anything."

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.

I Was a Kid in Solitary Confinement

My young parents didn’t have the skill sets to properly raise me, which at a young age caused me to search for acceptance in other places. I began running away at the age of 13 and quickly got heavily involved in drug use.

Nearly two years later I was a victim of sex trafficking. My trafficker was arrested and later sent to prison for the remainder of his life and I was sent to jail, where I received no healing and was sent back home nine months later. I once again found myself on the streets, and for the second time became a victim of sex trafficking not even a year later. This time, I decided to stand up against my trafficker. I didn’t go to the police because I didn’t want to relive the traumatic process of the court system.

On Aug. 31, 2011 I was arrested and jailed for six serious felonies against the man who brutally raped and trafficked me. Not even a month after sitting in the Juvenile Detention Center at age 16, I was charged as an adult and placed in the adult jail. The day I was sent to adult jail would change my life forever. Because I was under 18, I had to be separated from all adult prisoners by sight and sound to comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act.

Based on my developmental age, I should have been placed in a dorm with juveniles where we were treated differently and received proper services. In reality, I was placed in a mental health dorm even though I didn’t have a mental health diagnosis because there was no space in the jail to place me anywhere else. I was on lockdown 23 hours a day and was deprived of regular programming including access to education, recreation and mental health services that I didn’t qualify for.

I was in a dorm with legally insane people. They yelled and screamed at night about things that made no sense to me. I heard inmates banging, kicking and slamming heads on doors and walls, people throwing their feces out the flap of their blue metal door and much, much more. I saw people pepper-sprayed, tased, hog-tied and strapped down to a black restraint chair because they were being “too loud” or banging on the doors for “too long.”

As a child you can imagine the effect this had on me. Stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day forced me to relive the many traumatic experiences I had experienced years prior to my incarceration. Some days I blamed myself for the trauma, abuse and neglect. I convinced myself I deserved to be separated from the world because I only caused harm. On other days, I felt ostracized. All I wanted was to feel like I was a part of the human race — not like some caged animal. I felt alone, like no one cared and sometimes even asked myself, why am I even living?

It was almost impossible for me to process the feelings of being alone in a cell for 23 hours a day with no positive human contact. After being in a mental health dorm for some time, I saw quite a few people try to commit suicide so that question of why am I living turned into an action and I attempted suicide on a few different occasions. I remember one incident of me rolling off of the top bunk several times, trying to land on my head, hoping I would just die.

After attempting suicide didn’t work, I mentally tried to escape from confinement; I eventually started using a variety of mechanisms to dissociate from my experience. I felt like I was going mad. I started to play games with the walls in my room. I would count the bricks over and over again. I would play Tetris with the bricks, rearranging them in my mind. I even convinced myself that every time I went to sleep and woke up, a brick from the wall would be missing and the cell got smaller and smaller.

I was really lonely. I started arguments with myself and pretended like I was two different people arguing. I played out scenes from movies that I saw in the past. I remember one instance where I banged my head on the wall several times until I started bleeding, just to use the blood to enact a scene from a movie. The games of dissociation only lasted so long and eventually I began struggling to cope with confinement and I faced a losing battle with myself.

Soon, I fell into a deep, deep depression and had my first anxiety attack followed by uncontrollable rage. To cope with the depression, anxiety and rage I began daydreaming and sleeping. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was in bed trying to sleep. Get up, eat and back to sleep. This cycle of suicide attempts, dissociation, mind games, depression, anxiety, rage and sleeping my life away continued until I turned 18 and was moved in an adult dorm.

I can’t speak for all young people that have spent time or are currently spending time in confinement in an adult jail. I can only speak from my personal experiences. Duval County jail’s mission is “To operate facilities for secure, humane, corrective, and productive detention of those awaiting trial as well as those already sentenced.” But where was the productiveness in my incarceration? Where was the correction? Where is accountability for the jails to make sure arrested youth have the right space and services to avoid deeper damage?

Prior to ever ending up in the justice system, I had already experienced severe trauma. Being placed in confinement made the trauma experiences more exacerbated. The justice system is supposed to rehabilitate individuals but you can only do this if you understand what the people entering the system need.

Because of the lack of adequate mental health services and no one ever taking the time to ask me what happened to me, suffering was worse than it may otherwise have been. I was forced to relive the trauma over and over again, and eventually I detached myself from the trauma, further delaying my healing.

It wasn’t until four years later that I began receiving services. Not because the jail allowed me to, not because anyone recommended that I receive help, but because I was tired of living in misery, pain and suffering. I was tired of being bound to my past mistakes. I think of all the other children like me who are still stuck in solitary confinement and wonder if they will make it out as lucky as I did. I wonder if they get out, will they just go back because of all the damage that has been done to them.

Statistics suggest a higher recidivism rate for juveniles in the adult system, and especially for the juveniles stuck in solitary confinement. Our children deserve better. It is by luck that I’m able to write this. We need to eliminate luck from the equation. I am no longer bound, but other children are and will continue to be as long as we keep looking the other way.

Alyssa Beck is a survivor advocate who helps develop laws and practices that will support survivors of sex trafficking and youth involved in the justice justice system. Connected to the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, she is also a member of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Justice Youth Advisory Council.

This post originally appeared on JDAIconnect.org.

This column has been updated.

Recent Rulings in 6 States Signal New Momentum for Ending Solitary for Juveniles

This story was written for The Marshall Project.

A nationwide shift toward abolishing solitary confinement for juveniles, which began to take shape in 2016 after former President Barack Obama banned the practice in federal prisons, has surged ahead in recent months, with a half-dozen states either prohibiting or strictly limiting its use in their youth facilities.

In just the past year, a series of strongly worded federal court decisions, new state laws and policy changes in Wisconsin, Tennessee, New York, California, Colorado, Connecticut and North Carolina have nearly eliminated “punitive” solitary — holding youth in isolation for long periods of time rather than briefly for safety purposes — from the juvenile justice system. It was already largely prohibited in at least 29 states, according to a July 2016 survey of policies in all states and the District of Columbia.

The developments suggest that long-term isolation is rapidly losing ground as an accepted practice within the juvenile corrections profession, and that a child-specific definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” is now being established by courts across the country.

“These diverse courts seem to all at once be coming to the same conclusion: that solitary confinement of kids, who are our most vulnerable citizens, is unconstitutional,” said Amy Fettig, an expert on the issue for the ACLU.

But for youth advocates, ending juvenile solitary will take more work. Twenty-three percent of juvenile facilities nationally use some form of isolation, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The practice still has support from many, though not all, juvenile corrections administrators and officers, who are often underpaid, overworked and exhausted from double shifts and who believe solitary is the only disciplinary tool available to them without adequate mental health resources or alternative discipline options.

“The front-line staff, historically, they’ve been trained to use isolation as a means to control violent behavior and to keep themselves safe, and now we tell them, ‘Hey, there’s a different way to do things,’” said Mike Dempsey, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. “So there is pushback, resistance, fear — a fear that changes like these will basically create unsafe conditions.”

But the momentum for juvenile solitary reform continues, with the latest development coming in July in Wisconsin, where a federal judge ruled that children at the Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake youth prison complex — one of the largest juvenile facilities in the nation and long the subject of litigation — have an age-specific “right to rehabilitation” and that “solitary confinement violates it.”

Under the preliminary injunction issued by Judge James Peterson of Federal District Court in Madison on July 10, Wisconsin officials must stop holding youths in solitary for longer than seven days, and must allow them outside their cells for at least 30 hours a week. (They had previously been held in isolation for periods of 60 days or longer, according to the underlying lawsuit by the ACLU and the Juvenile Law Center.) The youths must also be provided therapy, education and recreation, the judge said.

A spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections said that while the agency has moved to implement these changes, “The merits of the case have not been decided.”

The injunction echoes one in March by another federal judge, in Tennessee, who blocked a county from placing juveniles in solitary confinement. And in February, a third federal judge, in yet another preliminary injunction, ordered a Syracuse, N.Y., jail to immediately stop putting 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary, citing the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The rulings also come in the wake of — and perhaps as a result of — two events involving juvenile solitary that drew national attention. The first was the death of Kalief Browder, the 16-year-old from the Bronx who, after being accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 — a charge he denied — was held at the Rikers Island jail for three years, about two of which he spent in solitary. In 2015, after finally having his case dismissed and gaining his release, he hanged himself in his own home.

It was an image that, for many, drove home the total and long-term damage that isolation can do to young people, a group that depends more than most on social contact, educational stimulus, and a sense of purpose. More than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities take place in solitary, according to the Justice Department.

Soon after, in January 2016, Obama banned the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prisons and also wrote an op-ed article citing Browder’s case and calling the practice “an affront to our common humanity.” It was a largely symbolic move, given that only 26 juveniles were being held in the federal system at that time. But many advocates credit it as an act of policy leadership that has spurred the flurry of state and local reforms in the year since.

In the months following, both California and Colorado legislatively banned the use of punitive solitary in juvenile facilities for periods longer than four hours. (However, an ACLU report published this year notes that despite the new law, Colorado’s youth corrections department placed juveniles in solitary 2,240 times in 2016.) And both North Carolina and Connecticut in 2016 limited the solitary confinement of teenagers held in adult facilities, a different but related policy change. Since youth in adult prisons must by federal law be segregated from adult prisoners, they are often held in isolation for no reason other than to keep them separate.

Yet despite the recent spurt of reforms, according to a Juvenile Law Center report, states like Nebraska are still regularly holding youth in isolation. And in New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a bill this year that would have restricted solitary for juveniles in adult prisons. She said it would have put guards in danger and hampered their flexibility to choose the best disciplinary options for the most violent inmates and also to keep youths fully separated from adults.

Even in the places where reform has been enacted, the work of translating a judge’s order or a new piece of legislation into actual, sustained culture change remains to be done, according to a report from the Juvenile Law Center.

Indeed, many juvenile justice agencies, when challenged by litigation or legislation, simply rename solitary confinement using one of a variety of well-worn euphemisms: “room confinement,” “special management unit,” “restricted engagement,” “administrative detention,” “time out,” or even “reflection cottage.” Other agencies just reclassify the type of isolation as “nonpunitive” in their official statistics, calling it “temporary” or for the limited purpose of protecting the youth or those around him from harm.

“Anytime you’re talking about new or additional training,” said Dempsey, the executive director of the juvenile corrections administrators council, “it does cost money. It takes investment in alternative techniques, and that can be hard because in this line of work there’s always turnover and staff shortages.”

That’s why Dempsey’s organization and the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, which aims to end juvenile solitary within three years, provide on-the-ground technical assistance to state and local agencies that might otherwise be inclined toward superficial reform. Juvenile justice officials from Kansas, for instance, were brought to a successful facility in Massachusetts to observe alternatives to solitary for themselves, said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and a leader of the campaign.

To Fettig, the ACLU advocate, the cause could not be more urgent. “Imagine if you left a kid locked in a small room for 70 days. Well, that same action is taken by state governments all over this country!” she said. “When you do this to children, they do not come back.”

This story originally appeared in The Marshall Project.

Solitary Confinement of Youth Used Frequently, Unfairly, New Report Says

Solitary confinement in juvenile facilities remains too widespread, is unnecessary and counterproductive, is unfairly applied and is harmful, a new report says.

In addition, experts lament the fact that there’s “a desperate need for better data on disparate treatment within facilities,” said Jessica Feierman, associate director of the Juvenile Law Center and one of the report’s authors.

In the report, which aims to bridge the information gap, the center presents raw testimony from people who have experienced solitary, data on frequency and length of confinement, and solution-oriented litigation and policy strategies.

Karen U. Lindell, staff attorney at the center and another co-author, hopes that individual defenders, parents and people who run correctional institutions will find concrete tools and tactics, recent case law and policy examples in the report to help them limit and eliminate solitary confinement.

Litigation strategies include arguing for child-specific constitutional standards and challenging the failure to provide a meaningful education while ensuring post-disposition representation. Visiting local facilities and working with advocates and parents is also recommended to broaden the potential for outreach and education. The report will be the center of a congressional briefing this afternoon.

“This is a problem that can be solved,” Feierman said.

Almost half of juvenile facilities report that they isolate youth for more than four hours to control behavior. That time ranges from hours to months on end. Basic necessities such as mattresses, sheets, showers and utensils for eating plus mental health treatment are not guaranteed in solitary, let alone niceties such as outdoor time, books or writing materials.

“This is something that if I did it to my own children it would be called child abuse,” she said.

Reasons reported for use of solitary confinement range from understaffing and administrative convenience to discipline and self-harm prevention. Some subsets of the population are more likely to get put into isolation. Youth identifying as LGBTQ are at “heightened risk” of being put into solitary, as are youth of color and youth with disabilities, the report said.

Youth can be detained from 22 to 23 hours a day, with their only human contact the glimpse of a hand pushing meals through the door slat or the guard escorting you to the shower. For young people with ever-developing minds, this can have perverse effects on their mental health and neurological development.  

“Solitary has affected me in ways I have never known,” said Eddie Ellis, founder of One by 1. He was put into solitary confinement at 15. His time there, combined, was 10 years.

“I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD and I’ve had doctors help me out,” he said. “But again, I had an anxiety attack just the other day.”

His memories and those of other youth about their time in solitary support the report’s medical findings: Studies link solitary confinement with suicidal thoughts, severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia and psychosis.

The report paints a grim picture of a widespread yet under-researched practice that not only differs by facility and region, but is also extremely covert — many things behind those isolation chamber walls never escape them.

“It’s very secretive, and they don’t talk to parents about the conditions their kids are under,” said the mother of a young man held in solitary, quoted in the report. Even lawyers are left out of the loop — two-thirds of survey respondents indicated that youth never receive a hearing before being placed in solitary.

The report suggests solitary in youth facilities could be put to an end, should litigators, policymakers and communities continue to unite following the lead of former President Barack Obama, who banned the use of solitary confinement for youth in federal prisons in 2016.

“It was a huge thing for President Barack Obama to come out and target juvenile solitary confinement like that,” Lindell said. “The number of children in federal prison is very small, but it sends a very powerful message to states — this isn't something that's necessary, this is something people are moving away from.”

Lindell pointed to Ohio and Massachusetts as states that have reduced their use of solitary confinement. Between 2014 and 2015 Ohio lessened its use by 88.6 percent, resulting in rates of violence dropping by 20 percent in the same timeframe. Its Department of Youth Services made major shifts in visitation hours and added chats with family via webcam calls, and programming such as sports, life skills classes, and movie nights in order to “decrease reliance on solitary confinement.”

Massachusetts' average confinement time is less than an hour. They have worked to educate their staff on de-escalation tactics and adolescent development training. Like Ohio, Massachusetts has employed evidence-based therapeutic models to shift their culture from a punitive to rehabilitative.

“Any time you can get states to understand that solitary is hurting people, it’s a win,” Ellis said.

The report closes with recommendations for reform to end this practice nationally. It encourages reformists not to settle for “altering” or “ameliorating” solitary conditions “for any reason other than to prevent immediate harm, with clear limits on its use even under emergency circumstances.”


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‘Crown Heights’: Cautionary True Tale of Youth’s Unjust Sentence, Exonerated By Stubborn Friend

“You never know how sacred your freedom is until it’s jeopardized.”

That’s the driving sentiment behind “Crown Heights,” a new film that tells a tale of friendship and perseverance in the face of a miscarriage of justice.

The drama is the story of Colin Warner, an 18-year-old immigrant from Trinidad who was arrested for a 1980 killing in New York that he played no part in. He ended up spending two decades behind bars before being freed — largely due to the efforts of his childhood friend Carl “KC” King, who ran down witnesses and lobbied lawyers to take on Warner’s case.

“This was a guy who grew up in prison,” said the film’s director, Matt Ruskin. “He was an 18-year-old kid when he was charged with a murder he had nothing to do with, and he became an adult in one of the harshest environments imaginable.”  

Warner was released in 2001 and won a $2.7 million settlement from New York authorities for their wrongful prosecution. He now lives quietly near Atlanta with his wife and daughter.

“My case which was so exceptional and strange is you had one person who literally put his life on hold to assist me,” Warner said. “There are not too many people alive like that.”

He’s now a property owner and a landlord, but he says he still struggles to adjust to life as a free man.

“I don’t believe you can imagine what 21 years in prison can do to someone,” he said.

Prison “was more mental than physical … I got to work trying to maintain my sanity in a madhouse, because that’s what prison was.”

When he got out, he said, “My wife had to hold my hand. My friends had to hold my hand the first couple of years I was here.

“I am still getting back into society and I try to keep my life as simple as possible,” he said. He saw a psychiatrist for a while, “but I thought I did not receive what I needed. The person you’re speaking to now was basically put together by himself.”

Lakeith Stanfield and Natalie Paul star in "Crown Heights," the story of an 18-year-old sent to prison for a murder he didn't commit.

Shorter sentence for actual gunman

The killing that put Warner in prison happened in April 1980, in Brooklyn. Warner — played by actor Lakeith Stanfield, from the recent film “Get Out” and the television show “Atlanta” — had a prior arrest for carrying a pistol, and he was mistakenly identified by a witness from a book of mug shots. Police then leaned on other witnesses to match that shaky ID.

Even though detectives confirmed a different person shot the victim, Mario Hamilton, prosecutors kept charges against Warner as an accomplice. Both suspects were tried together and convicted even after a key witness changed his testimony on the stand.

Warner was sentenced to 15 years to life. He was released in 2001 after a judge threw out his convictions. The actual gunman, who was under 18 at the time, got nine years and was paroled in 1989.

It took two years for his case to come to trial — two years in which Warner was held without bail at New York’s lockup on Rikers Island. Knowing he was innocent, Warner struggled to adjust to prison: He spent about four of his first 10 years in solitary confinement. That disciplinary record and his refusal to admit guilt and express remorse for Hamilton’s killing cost him his first shot at parole.

Ruskin said a turning point came with the death of Warner’s grandmother, who had helped raise him in Trinidad.

“He said he realized that time was slipping away, and that life was continuing on, even though his had come to a grinding halt,” the director said. “He became much more active not only in fighting for his freedom, but he made a very conscious decision to be present and live his life wherever he was at that moment, rather than fighting and avoidance and what he said was letting things get away from him.”

Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield) faces a life behind bars for a killing he didn't commit in "Crown Heights," based on Warner's real-life story.

Drama based on hard truth

The film is scheduled to hit theaters Aug. 25. Though it is a dramatization of Warner’s story, it draws heavily on source documents and interviews with the participants. For instance, when Warner is convicted — despite a prosecution witness changing his story on the stand and a total lack of physical evidence — the judge says, “Is this verdict true? I don’t pretend to know.” That line came straight from the trial transcripts, Ruskin said.

Both King, played by former NFL defensive back Nnamdi Asomugha, and Warner were involved in shaping the script from the beginning. Ruskin said he recorded dozens of hours of interviews with them about their experiences, and they had several lengthy but less formal conversations during production.

“They had an open invite while we were shooting,” he said. “While I was writing the script, they spent countless hours talking with me about their experiences.”

Warner said he still feels like he has the mark of an ex-convict on him, and he tries to teach his 10-year-old daughter the importance of making good decisions. Nor has he fully escaped tragedy in his new life: His 13-year-old son drowned two years ago on the Fourth of July. He always tries to help people, “because without help, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”

Meanwhile, King is still in New York, working as a process server — a job he took to help meet lawyers who could help his friend. Ruskin said King is still trying to help people like Warner, “and there is no shortage of cases that he’s become aware of.”

“He has always continued to do this type of work since Colin’s exoneration,” Ruskin said. 

The killing for which Warner was imprisoned was one of more than 1,800 in New York that year. It was part of a nationwide surge in violence that started in the 1960s and peaked in the 1990s, leaving police, prosecutors and politicians scrambling.

“It was just clearing the cases you had on your desk and doing whatever you had to do to get convictions,” Ruskin said. “On the one hand, it was the height of the crime wave in New York, and I think these people were completely overburdened. On the other hand, this kind of misconduct was completely inexcusable and led to situations like there where you have an innocent kid spending 20 years of his adult life in prison.”

Those pressures also overwhelmed the courts: Warner had a series of public defenders at different hearings before his 1982 trial, “so there was no continuity in his defense until the trial started, Ruskin said. “You had people who weren’t familiar with the details of his case, didn’t believe in his innocence or just weren’t present.”  

Potential return to old policies

Ruskin’s film marks the passage of time with politicians like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, New York Mayor Ed Koch and state Gov. George Pataki vowing to get tough on crime. A generation later, many of their successors have been rethinking those policies, particularly the harsh minimum sentences imposed on drug offenders.

But under the Trump administration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has moved to roll back decisions made by his predecessors to de-emphasize nonviolent drug crimes and avoid charges that would expose nonviolent offenders to some of the mandatory minimum terms imposed at the height of the crime wave.

Ruskin said the policies of the past mean there likely are more cases like Warner’s — and going back to them will likely mean more in the future.

“When the focus is on punishment rather than justice, and when you’re looking at statistics rather than the health of a community, I think it’s inevitable that there will be casualties of an aggressive and inhumane system,” he said.

Groups Urge Federal, State Legislation to End Solitary Confinement of Young People

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

Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch published  a new report titled “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States.”

The publication involved interviews with more than 125 juveniles in 19 states, alongside detention officials in 10 states. The authors of the report argue that solitary confinement harms young people mentally and physically, with juveniles frequently denied access to medical, rehabilitative and psychological treatments and services while in confinement. Furthermore, the report alleges that in jails and prisons across the United States, young people are routinely subjected to extensive stays in solitary confinement -- in some cases, for weeks and even months at a time.

“Solitary confinement of adolescents is unnecessary,” the report reads. “There are alternative ways to address the problems -- whether disciplinary, administrative, protective or medical -- which officials typically cite as justifications for solitary confinement.”

The authors of the report state that approximately one third of the young people they interviewed reported being held in solitary confinement for one to six months before turning 18. Twenty-one juveniles said that, while in confinement, they were denied visitations with family members, while an additional 16 recalled being isolated for days on end, without even reading materials provided to them.

The report offers several recommendations for federal and state legislation, including the total prohibition of solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 18. The authors additionally call for the cessation of holding juveniles in adult prisons, as well as advocating for the ratification of human rights treaties “protecting young people without reservations.”

“Solitary confinement, and many of the deprivations that are typically associated with it, has a distinct and particularly profound impact on young people, often doing serious damage to their development and psychological and physical well-being,” the report states. “Because of the special vulnerability and needs of adolescents, solitary confinement can be a particularly cruel and harmful practice when applied to them.”