By Carlos Jennings
The solitary confinement of young people in juvenile correctional facilities and prisons has come under increasing scrutiny as of late. Last May, as part of a class action lawsuit settlement, Contra Costa County in California agreed to stop holding underage youth in solitary confinement as a form of punishment, except when they are an immediate danger to themselves or others and then for no more than 4 hours at a time. The case was filed by Disability Rights Advocates of Berkeley and Public Counsel of Los Angeles, two nonprofit legal organizations. The suit alleged that minors, including those with developmental and psychiatric disabilities, were routinely held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, sometimes for months at a time.
While in solitary they were denied education, counseling, and other federally mandated rehabilitative services. Although they have agreed to the terms of the settlement, county officials have been defiant saying that the county did not use solitary confinement or cause harm to youth and that the lawsuit was a waste of taxpayer money. But Laura Faer, co-counsel and education rights director with Public Counsel, said youth were “placed in small cells with a window the size of your arm, with a slab of concrete and a mattress, and they are kept in those cells without education. “ Such was the case with one of the plaintiffs, W.B., who suffered a psychotic break and was found smearing feces on his cell wall after being held in solitary confinement for more than 100 days.
Judicial reform activists hoped the Contra Costa victory would pave the way for statewide reform. Subsequently, State Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights co-sponsored Senate Bill 124 which would end the use of solitary confinement in juvenile correctional facilities on a statewide basis. The provisions of the bill were similar to those in the Contra Costa lawsuit and would allow solitary confinement only when an individual poses an immediate and substantial risk to the facility or to him- or herself, and not for more than 4 hours. It also bans the practice for individuals with physical or mental disorders, and it would require statewide reporting of all instances of solitary confinement. The bill was passed by the senate this June and was then sent to the state assembly for a vote.
Debate on this issue is also taking place in other states and in Canada. In 2014, New York City banned solitary confinement for inmates under 21, and the Ohio Department of Youth Services agreed to eventually eliminate the practice and to improve mental health services as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Children’s Law Center. In November 2015, a $125 million class-action lawsuit was filed with the Ontario Superior Court over the alleged mistreatment of minors in youth justice facilities. Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called for reform after Ashley Smith, 19, committed suicide after spending over 1,000 days in solitary confinement in youth and federal prison.
These recent lawsuits and legislative reform efforts come at a time when criminal justice reform advocates cite mounting evidence that solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, especially for teens that are still developing and may have already experienced various forms of trauma in their lives. A 2009 national survey has linked solitary confinement to an increase in suicide rates. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 60% of young people who committed suicide had a history of solitary confinement, and 50% of suicides in juvenile facilities occurred while youth were isolated in their rooms. Tragically, this happened to Rosemary Summers, 16, of San Diego, who hanged herself after six weeks in solitary confinement in 2013.
On November 15, 2015, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the House version of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123), bringing the criminal justice reform bill one step closer to becoming law. While the bill is mainly focused on sentencing reforms for adults in federal prisons, part of the bill focuses on the federal juvenile justice system and would– for the first time — ban the solitary confinement of youth in federal facilities. Criminal justice advocates say that while this is a step in the right direction, it would have no effect on state-level policies. A complete ban would require each state to enact similar legislation. Ten states currently have no time limits on detaining juveniles in solitary confinement.
Unfortunately, the California Assembly rejected S.B. 124 due to the perceived costs of implementation. Proponents of the bill will try again during the next legislative session in 2016. This comes on the heels of Ashker v. Governor of California where the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed to greatly reduce solitary confinement for adult inmates. Plaintiffs said that some inmates were held in solitary for a decade or more at Pelican Bay State Prison and that the state did not provide due process and violated the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The solitary confinement of juveniles must also end. The U.S. Department of Education, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization, and the U.N. have all condemned the practice. Research on the impact of isolation has shown that it can lead to panic attacks, depression, obsessive thoughts, impulsive behavior, psychosis, and other harmful effects. It can hinder young people from becoming healthy, productive adults and can cause psychological, physical, and developmental harm, especially for those with disabilities or with previous experiences of abuse and trauma.
End Solitary Confinement: The practice is inhumane and unconstitutional – The Harvard Crimson