In 2012, the U.S. Attorney General appointed a national task force on children exposed to violence that concluded, “Nowhere is the impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” This statement still holds true and solitary confinement bears an even heavier impact on incarcerated youth today.
Why? Because the use of solitary confinement has been practiced under a variety of assumed names (room restriction, room confinement, isolation, extended time away, etc.), and used as a major intervention tool in so many facilities, that it has become an art. Like an assembly line, newly hired staff are seemingly on-the-job trained by veteran staff in the art of using solitary confinement and how to justify its use.
Historically, separating youth in crisis for short periods of time were interventions used to allow the youth and staff space to work together to ease the youth’s angst within that moment, and capture opportunities to practice newly learned coping skills. So how did we stray so far from using partnerships between youth and staff as the go-to interventions in de-escalating youth in crisis to leaving a youth alone, in a dreary, lonely and isolated space for extended periods of time.
Solitary confinement deprives a youth of their needed human contact and the necessary cognitive stimulation the human brain requires to develop on pace with physical development. Instead, a youth is left to cope with their original crisis moment(s) by themselves. Wouldn’t one think that if a youth was initially unable to bring their own crisis behavior under control when the incident occurred, how would they gain a better coping option being alone in an isolated space with no new intelligent stimulation to help them make better choices the next time a similar event occurs?
It doesn’t rehabilitate
Simply put, solitary confinement is not a commensurate intervention for any demonstrated youth crisis behavior because solitary confinement is purely punitive and has no rehabilitative function. Youth returning into general population from being in solitary confinement have demonstrated decreases in emotional stability, cognitive development and social interactions as well as increases in impulsivity, anger outbursts and depression. Youth who return from extended periods of solitary confinement have been shown to have more program-violating incidents than before entering solitary confinement.
If this is a common thread of results from the use of solitary confinement, why is this sanction still on any juvenile justice facility’s intervention continuum? Is it that solitary confinement has become a go-to luxury and convenience for mentally lethargic staff, at the detriment of a youth’s mental, physical and overall developmental health? Are staff concerned that if they take the extra time to assist a youth through a crisis event that it may cost the staff too much time and emotional energy? Or are staff worried that their inadequacies to deal with youth in crisis may be exposed? Isn’t that why facility staff are compensated — for sight and sound supervision, managing youth crisis events and teaching youth new coping skills? Didn’t we all sign into this field to be specialists in working with justice-involved youth?
Overall, the use of solitary confinement is largely about convenience and staff attitudes regarding rehabilitating youth. Working in juvenile justice facilities, specifically in crisis situations, will unmask staff’s innermost attitudes about youth rehabilitation. I have observed seemingly good staff progressively get seduced away from youth rehabilitation toward youth debilitation by way of using the facility’s low-hanging intervention, namely solitary confinement. In my 23 years in the fields of juvenile justice and mental health, the most common reasons youth are placed isolation or solitary confinement are:
- Refusing to comply with staff directions;
- Verbal threats to peers or staff;
- Sleeping in school or refusing to complete schoolwork;
- Fighting and assaultive behavior;
- Cursing at staff;
- Bullying peers;
- Manipulating program parameters;
- Property damage;
- Self-Injurious behaviors, and
- Planning or trying to escape.
To safely end its reliance on solitary confinement, facilities are encouraged to put in place other tools to help youth learn problem-solving skills. Finding proportionate responses to crisis behaviors is a delicate balance. The appropriate intervention response should discourage the behavior, while offering healthy alternatives.
What does work
If youth are not taught and given opportunity to practice new coping skills to respond to what they identify as crisis events, then the youth will exercise the only coping skills they possess. As the adage says, “If your only tool is a hammer, then all you know is nails.” We must help youth increase their coping tools. Some examples of responses to crisis behaviors that do not entail the use of solitary confinement include:
- Not earning points/privileges;
- Completion of written assignments related to the behavior;
- Time-limited activity suspensions;
- Removal from a group to a less stimulating group;
- Early shower or bedtime;
- Timeout (15 minutes or less);
- Mediation with staff or peers;
- Develop Individualized Success Plans;
- Eating specific meals with a different group;
- A peer or staff mentor appointed to the youth;
- Completion of a “behavioral think sheet” presented to peers,
- Incentivizing of targeted behaviors.
These are tried and true interventions that have worked in Indiana and other jurisdictions around the country. When we put these interventions in place in Indiana, the facility became safer, healthier and better for youth and staff, even though we weren’t relying on solitary confinement.
The intended goal of juvenile justice facilities is to provide a safe and secure environment that is conducive for rehabilitation. The use of solitary confinement, on the contrary, moves the facility's pendulum from rehabilitation to dehabilitation. Solitary confinement should be removed from all juvenile justice facilities’ interventions continuums because it serves a singular purpose: as a punitive approach to correcting behaviors. Solitary confinement is never a commensurate response.
DeShane Reed is the senior juvenile justice practitioner with DRB Consulting, LLC and has been in the field of juvenile justice and mental health for more than 23 years. A USDOJ certified PREA auditor and a member of the JDAI-Applied Leadership Network, he recently published “The Art of Holistic Security,” a manual for juvenile justice facilities.