As someone who has both sued and run correctional facilities for youth in the juvenile justice system, I appreciate the dangers and challenges around the use of solitary confinement of youth. I also understand that the use of practices like solitary confinement and other harmful approaches, such as shackling of youth, are indicative of facilities and systems that ignore the research on what works with young people.
We also often see a range of problems in facilities that use solitary confinement, such as overcrowding, shortages of staff, including qualified mental health professionals, and lack of adequate training for staff, particularly on how to effectively de-escalate tense situations. In 2005, when I started with the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), Washington, DC’s correctional agency, we had all these problems and more in our secure facility. This included a “lock-down” unit where youth were kept in their rooms for 22 to 23 hours a day.
Youth on the “lock-down” unit, otherwise known as “10-A,” included young people who had been placed in solitary confinement for a range of reasons, including discipline (often as a response to fairly minor misbehavior), serious mental health issues, or “protection” from others (including in response to their sexual orientation). This was a unit that was abusive and harmful to youth on multiple levels.
The culture and practice at DYRS were so reliant on practices like solitary that when we opened a new detention center staff there approached me and asked that they be able to place acting-out youth in 10-A, even though it was more than 20 miles away in another facility. It was clear that staff believed that their only effective response to very challenging behaviors by young people was to lock them away in a small room, sometimes for days at a time.
Most of those working with our youth were decent, caring people who had taken jobs in the juvenile justice system out of a desire to help the young people with whom they were working. But the problem was that the system didn’t give them the tools to work effectively with delinquent youth, and was reliant on outdated and dangerous correctional practices.
Solitary confinement is one of the most problematic of such traditional correctional practices, often leading to severe mental and physical consequences for young people, including psychological harms, depression and anxiety. The use of solitary is also particularly harmful for adolescents, who are still developing and can suffer permanent harm to their psychological and social well-being as a result. We shouldn’t be surprised that youth in solitary are at increased risk of suicide, with more than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities occurring while youth are held in solitary. This literally can be a life-or-death issue.
Like most issues in our justice system, this is also a racial justice issue. Research shows that youth of color are overrepresented and disproportionately impacted at every stage of our juvenile justice systems, and that secure facilities across the country are overwhelmingly filled with black and brown youth. Based on this, we know that the majority of young people in solitary confinement are likely youth of color.
The harm from solitary confinement is finally getting the national attention it deserves, and President Obama’s call for an end to solitary confinement of young people is an important step forward. While the president’s new policy only applies to the small number of youth charged with federal offenses, his call to action and the Department of Justice’s guidance in this area can serve as a model for state and county facilities, where most youth are incarcerated. President Obama joined a growing number of government officials, medical and mental health professionals, and juvenile justice experts, including those who run facilities, who want to end this counterproductive practice.
Stop Solitary for Kids, which is being launched today, is an effort to initiate a coordinated national movement to end solitary confinement for youth in all juvenile and adult facilities. The campaign is a unique partnership being led by advocacy, research and policy organizations, such as the Center for Children’s Law & Policy, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, the Justice Policy Institute and an organization whose membership are those who actually run juvenile facilities across the country, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators. An extensive range of organizations have signed on in support of the campaign, including the ACLU, Children’s Defense Fund, American Psychological Association and the American Correctional Association.
The good news is that we know ending the use of solitary confinement is possible, actually resulting in safer facilities for youth and staff. In DC, we created a facility culture that was based on the principles of adolescent development and best practices in working with youth, which resulted in a much safer and rehabilitative facility. And there are an increasing number of states that have either eliminated the use of solitary confinement for discipline in their juvenile facilities, like Ohio and Massachusetts, or have decreased its use significantly, like Indiana and Oregon.
It is time to stop solitary for kids once and for all. We can do this, and it will result in a fairer and more effective justice system.
Marc Schindler is the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. He formerly served as general counsel, chief of staff and interim director for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in Washington, District of Columbia.
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