California takes a historic step forward this month as it moves to enact restrictions on the use of solitary confinement in state and local facilities for youth — curbing a manifest violation of human rights and protecting its youth from the trauma of isolated confinement. With the passage of Senate Bill 1143, California will join the federal prison system and several other U.S. states in limiting solitary confinement for youth under 18.
If signed into law, California’s reform would impact thousands of young people held in dozens of facilities across the state, where youth solitary confinement has long served as an instrument of punishment and control. In California’s Division of Juvenile Justice, for example, youth are confined to their cells for months on end with severely restricted out-of-room time. Young people in these units spend a majority of the day forbidden from moving freely or interacting with other youth, and limited in their access to visitation, programming or personal items. In one 2012 incident, youth were “locked-down” for nearly a month, during which time they were confined in isolation for nearly 24 hours per day and spent several days with only their underwear and a blanket.
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Extended periods of isolation can be devastating, particularly for young people and for those who have experienced previous trauma. Nationwide, most youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system have already been subjected to abuse and violence. Childhood trauma produces a persistent and heightened state of anxiety, which increases a young person’s chances of problematic substance use, physical or mental health issues or contact with the justice system. Rather than nurture and rehabilitate, the juvenile justice system can expose those most vulnerable to additional trauma. For many young people, the very experience of a locked facility reinforces existing psychological distress.
Solitary confinement furthers this trauma and profoundly impacts mental well-being. Placing youth in isolation, whether to punish or protect, blunts the effectiveness of treatment and undermines efforts to make youth whole. Individuals who are isolated and deprived of sensory stimulation, with limitations on full and free movement, are at increased risk of anxiety, depression, psychosis, self-harm and suicide. And these perils disproportionately impact youth of color and LGBTQ youth.
Correctional institutions justify the use of youth solitary confinement by citing concerns over youth or staff safety, but solitary confinement itself engenders violence. Foregoing the practice in favor of institutional reforms, such as smaller living units, improved staff training, reduced overcrowding and expanded access to trauma-informed mental health services, can make facilities safer for staff and young people alike.
The experts are unequivocal: solitary confinement is damaging and inhumane. The United Nations, the U.S. Department of Justice and the American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) have each declared their firm opposition to youth solitary confinement, and the AACAP make clear that “seclusion should only be used for the least amount of time possible for the immediate physical protection of an individual, in situations where less restrictive interventions have proven ineffective.”
Despite widespread consensus on the futility and cruelty of youth solitary confinement, states across the U.S. have been slow to adopt restrictions on its use. Currently, 29 states still permit the use of solitary confinement as a form of punishment for youth, and many rely on it as a routine tool of convenience, using it to separate youth under 18 from the general population of an adult prison or jail.
To safeguard youth, states must enact reforms similar to those in place in the federal prison system, Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma, West Virginia or Texas that strictly limit periods of confinement and mandate reporting on instances of prolonged isolation. Moreover, states that prosecute youth as adults must end the incarceration of youth in adult facilities in order to stop the default placement of young people in isolation.
Youth solitary confinement fails to keep youth or staff safe and inflicts lasting harm on those most in need of support. California’s pending reform serves as an example and a reminder — systems-impacted young people deserve humane treatment that fosters rehabilitation and long-term well-being.
Maureen Washburn is a member of the Policy and Communications team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.