The American Civil Liberties Union has called for a ban on solitary confinement of children being held in juvenile facilities.
In a report titled “Alone and Afraid: Children Held in Solitary Confinement and Isolation in Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities,” the ACLU strongly condemned solitary confinement, in which children are held in a small cell 22 to 24 hours a day with little social contact.
“Solitary confinement can cause serious psychological, physical, and developmental harm, resulting in persistent mental health problems or, worse, suicide,” the report stated.
The ACLU, which had previously urged a ban on solitary confinement for youths being held in adult detention facilities, also sharply criticized isolation in juvenile facilities that lasts less than 22 hours.
“It is time to abolish the solitary confinement of children and strictly limit and uniformly regulate isolation practices,” the report said.
Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told JJIE.org that juveniles sometimes need to be isolated to protect themselves or others but that should last minutes or hours, not days.
“The risks are simply too great to subject children to 22-, 23-, 24-hour-a-day lockdown, and that’s the kind of practice that if parents did it, we would consider it child abuse, but the state does it every day to kids,” Fettig said.
She said about 70,000 young people are being held at any given time in juvenile facilities nationwide and that in many facilities solitary confinement is “routine.”
Fettig said solitary confinement deprives children of education and exercise they need to stay healthy and subjects them to conditions that can seriously impair their mental health.
She pointed out that Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has called for a global ban on use of solitary confinement for children and a limit of 15 days for adults. Children have often been subjected to solitary confinement for more than 15 days, Fettig said.
The ACLU report cited a July 5, 2013, letter to an ACLU official from Robert Listenbee Jr., administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Justice Department, in which he stated that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”
The report also noted the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence recently concluded that “nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.”
And in an April 2012 statement, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry said: “The potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis. Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions. Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”
It’s impossible to say how often juvenile detention facilities use solitary confinement or other forms of isolation, as neither states nor the federal government publishes such data and almost no detention facilities make the data available to the public.
Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategies Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, told JJIE.org that he backed the ACLU’s call for a ban on solitary confinement of youths in juvenile facilities.
“It’s a form of torture because all of the evidence -- certainly from the psychologists, psychiatrists and the developmental experts, not to mention the people who have experienced it -- indicate that is has that kind of traumatic effect on people who are subject to it,” Lubow said.
“This is pretty much a no-brainer if people think of it from the perspective of what they would do with their own kids. We give kids time-outs, which is a very different reality. That’s not what we’re talking about here.”
If a child is so out of control that he needs to be isolated, an adult should be there with the child to restore him to calm, Lubow said.
Some of the best juvenile facilities, he said, work to create an environment in which the norms for the children and adults discourage the types of behavior that lead to kids being confined, or the facilities respond to behavior in ways that don’t require isolation and solitary confinement.
Dana Shoenberg, deputy director of the Washington-based Center for Children's Law and Policy, shared that view.
“We think that there are ways of handling discipline and preventing the need for discipline other than having to lock kids in a room and leave them without stimulation,” Shoenberg told JJIE.org.
“There are things that jurisdictions can do to prevent the need [for solitary confinement]. When they use positive incentives to encourage the right behavior, when they keep kids busy, when they give them the kind of mental health services that they need, these are the ways that jurisdictions can avoid the unnecessary use of solitary confinement.
“And that’s a message we really want to get to people, is that it takes creativity and it takes really engaging with kids, and it definitely takes having the professional services available that kids need to meet their mental health needs.”
The ACLU report noted some progress: Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and West Virginia have banned or restricted solitary confinement of juveniles.
Legislation pending in California would ban solitary confinement in juvenile facilities unless a youth posed “an immediate and substantial risk of harm” to others and to the “security of the facility” and all less-restrictive options have been exhausted.
In New Hampshire, pending legislation would ban solitary confinement for inmates under 18.
And Texas has passed legislation requiring a comprehensive review of the use of solitary confinement.
The report said juvenile detention facilities generally justify solitary confinement and other forms of physical and social isolation for one of four reasons:
- Disciplinary isolation is used to punish children when they break facility rules.
- Protective isolation is designed to protect a child from other children.
- Administrative isolation is used during initial processing at a facility when officials don’t know another way to manage a child or when they consider the child too disruptive or out of control.
- Medical isolation is used to treat children for medical reasons, including having a contagious disease or having expressed a desire to commit suicide.