Each year, thousands of children are subjected to solitary confinement in juvenile facilities and adult jails and prisons. Solitary confinement — also known as room confinement, seclusion, isolation or segregation — is the involuntary placement of a youth alone in a cell, room or other area for any reason.
Because of limited resources, facility administrators often use room confinement for youth with unaddressed mental health, behavioral or developmental needs. In some cases, solitary confinement is used as punishment for violating rules in the facility.
Solitary confinement can have permanent and devastating effects on youth, causing trauma, psychological damage, depression, anxiety and increased risk of suicide and self-harm. Many youth in solitary do not receive appropriate education, mental health services or drug treatment. Research shows that more than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities occurred while young people were held in isolation.
There is a growing national consensus that we must eliminate solitary confinement for children. The Report of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence called for the end of solitary confinement for youth, decrying its damaging impact.
In July 2015, President Obama denounced the overuse of solitary confinement and called on the Attorney General to review its use in American prisons. Professional organizations such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Public Health Association, the American Bar Association, the National Lawyers Guild and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration all support the end of solitary confinement for children.
Most recently, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, legislation that for the first time in decades proposes significant changes to federal criminal and juvenile justice laws with support on both sides of the aisle. The act limits the use of solitary confinement for youth to situations in which the young person poses a serious and immediate threat of physical harm, and then only for brief periods of no more than three hours.
On Oct. 19, 2015, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony from a diverse group of witnesses in support of the legislation, including the Deputy Attorney General. The introduction of the act with such widespread and diverse support is a clear indication that the time is right for juvenile justice stakeholders and policymakers to end the use of solitary confinement for kids.
As calls for reform of solitary confinement for youth grow, national experts have created guidelines addressing solitary confinement. The Standards for Juvenile Detention Facility Assessments were developed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for use in the more than 250 sites in 39 states that are part of the foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI).
The juvenile correctional community has developed a comparable springboard for reform. The Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators developed Performance-based Standards (PbS) as well as a toolkit on “Reducing the Use of Isolation.” Under both the JDAI and PbS Standards, isolation or confinement of a youth to his or her room should be used only to protect the youth from harming himself or others and, if used, should be brief and supervised.
The JDAI Detention Standards, along with the JDAI publication, “Strategies to Eliminate the Unnecessary Use of Room Confinement,” describe steps that facilities should take to eliminate solitary confinement. Facilities should have clear policies limiting solitary confinement to temporary emergency situations. Facilities should also maintain adequate numbers of line staff and mental health professionals to properly supervise and engage youth to prevent behavioral incidents.
Staff should receive training on de-escalation techniques and alternative responses to disruptive behavior. Facility administrators should develop positive programming that provides youth with ample incentives and activities. Finally, facilities should monitor the use of solitary confinement through collection and analysis of data on the frequency and duration of its use.
While progress on eliminating the use of solitary confinement for young people is growing, in order to stop this harmful practice there needs to be a coordinated national movement to end solitary confinement for kids in all facilities. This should involve organizing at the state and federal level, and include voices from diverse parts of the juvenile justice community, from youth and families directly affected by solitary confinement to youth correctional agencies which must ensure that youth and staff are safe.
A number of national organizations, including the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators and the Justice Policy Institute are engaged in developing a strategy to bring others to the table on this critical issue.
It is time to end solitary confinement of young people across the country, and with widespread and coordinated support we believe we can stop this harmful practice and create better outcomes for young people and our communities.
Jenny Lutz is a staff attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy in Washington.
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