Stepping Back from Solitary Confinement

By Jason Szanyi

One recurring theme during the CFCC’s fourth annual Urban Child Symposium was that youth in the juvenile justice system are best served by community- and family-based treatment options, not incarceration. My colleague, Dana Shoenberg, helped explain why in her presentation on the needs of youth who get in trouble with the law. Incarceration is not only expensive, it’s actually associated with higher recidivism rates than other cheaper, more effective approaches to holding youth accountable for their behavior. When youth are locked up, they’re also exposed to a range of possible negative outcomes, including disengagement from school, severed connections with family members, deteriorating mental health conditions, and physical and sexual victimization by youth and staff.

Many jurisdictions are moving away from their reliance on incarceration for these very reasons. Yet we’re a long away from a world without secure facilities. Until then, we must take steps to ensure the safety of youth in our nation’s juvenile detention facilities and juvenile prisons. That means working to end the dangerous practices that take place behind those walls.

                                   © Richard Ross

Congress recently raised public awareness of one such practice: the excessive and inappropriate use of isolation. On June 19th, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights convened the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. Although the hearing focused primarily on solitary confinement in adult prisons and jails, many youth advocates attended and submitted pages of written testimony that outlined the particular dangers of isolating children in juvenile and adult facilities.

One needs to look no further than the Special Litigation Section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to find numerous examples of the inappropriate and excessive use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities. For example, at the Oakley and Columbia Training Schools in Mississippi, staff punished girls for acting out or being suicidal by stripping them naked and placing them in a cell called the “dark room,” a locked, windowless isolation cell cleared of everything but a drain in the floor that served as a toilet. Other Justice Department investigations have documented the routine use of solitary confinement on mentally ill children and children with disabilities.

Professor Richard Ross of the University of California has spent the past few years photographing the inside of juvenile facilities around the country, taking pictures of cells used for solitary confinement of children along the way. The images are striking, conveying the sense of hopelessness and isolation that youth experience when placed in these settings. It’s no surprise that a recent study of suicides in juvenile facilities found a “strong relationship” between suicide and isolation, with approximately half of the study’s victims being in solitary confinement at the time of their death.

Our experiences with secure facilities confirm that the inappropriate and excessive use of solitary confinement of children is widespread. Our experiences also confirm that the misuse of solitary confinement usually stems from a relatively small set of common problems. These include inadequate staff training, administrators’ failure to adopt policies and practices that recognize the needs and problems of the population they are serving, a lack of ways to keep kids busy and well supervised, and shortages of mental health professionals, just to name a few.

What can be done? First, staff should receive regular, comprehensive training on effective de-escalation techniques, which are essential to build staff members’ skills to manage incidents without resorting to solitary confinement or other restrictive interventions. Second, officials should place clear limits on the use of solitary confinement of children, restricting its use to situations when a youth is threatening imminent harm to self or others or serious destruction of property, and only so long as is necessary for the threat to pass. Third, officials should devote more resources to increasing the number of direct care staff and qualified mental health professionals, as the use of solitary confinement often stems from situations that could have been prevented through increased supervision and opportunities for treatment. Fourth, facility administrators should provide consistent and engaging programming that will keep youth busy and minimize the opportunity for altercations. And finally, officials should ensure that there is independent monitoring of facilities that house youth to identify and remedy any harmful practices before they develop into widespread abuses.

Jason Szanyi is a staff attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, a public interest law and policy organization focused on reform of juvenile justice and other systems that affect troubled and at-risk children, and protection of the rights of children in those systems. 

This post is the second in a series of blog posts around CFCC’s Fourth Annual Urban Child Symposium, entitled “The Beginning or the End? The Urban Child’s Experience in the Juvenile Justice System,” which took place April 12, 2012. To view the first post, click here.  

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