Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Stepping Back from Solitary Confinement

One recurring theme during the CFCC’s fourth annual Urban Child Symposium was that youth in the juvenile justice system are best served by community- and family-based treatment options, not incarceration. My colleague, Dana Shoenberg, helped explain why in her presentation on the needs of youth who get in trouble with the law. Incarceration is not only expensive, it’s actually associated with higher recidivism rates than other cheaper, more effective approaches to holding youth accountable for their behavior. When youth are locked up, they’re also exposed to a range of possible negative outcomes, including disengagement from school, severed connections with family members, deteriorating mental health conditions, and physical and sexual victimization by youth and staff.

Many jurisdictions are moving away from their reliance on incarceration for these very reasons. Yet we’re a long away from a world without secure facilities. Until then, we must take steps to ensure the safety of youth in our nation’s juvenile detention facilities and juvenile prisons. That means working to end the dangerous practices that take place behind those walls.

                                   © Richard Ross
Congress recently raised public awareness of one such practice: the excessive and inappropriate use of isolation. On June 19th, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights convened the first ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement. Although the hearing focused primarily on solitary confinement in adult prisons and jails, many youth advocates attended and submitted pages of written testimony that outlined the particular dangers of isolating children in juvenile and adult facilities.  

One needs to look no further than the Special Litigation Section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to find numerous examples of the inappropriate and excessive use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities. For example, at the Oakley and Columbia Training Schools in Mississippi, staff punished girls for acting out or being suicidal by stripping them naked and placing them in a cell called the “dark room,” a locked, windowless isolation cell cleared of everything but a drain in the floor that served as a toilet. Other Justice Department investigations have documented the routine use of solitary confinement on mentally ill children and children with disabilities.

Professor Richard Ross of the University of California has spent the past few years photographing the inside of juvenile facilities around the country, taking pictures of cells used for solitary confinement of children along the way. The images are striking, conveying the sense of hopelessness and isolation that youth experience when placed in these settings. It’s no surprise that a recent study of suicides in juvenile facilities found a “strong relationship” between suicide and isolation, with approximately half of the study’s victims being in solitary confinement at the time of their death.