Juvenile Justice Sentencing Solitary

ISOLATING KIDS: A Bill to Limit Juvie Solitary Tries (Again) for Passage, While LA County Sends Kids to Isolation for Minor Incidents


Tuesday, State Senator Leland Yee introduced a bill to “define and limit the use of solitary confinement in state and county juvenile correctional facilities.”

LA County is one of the regions that evidently is still sorely in need of such guidelines (yet it is far from the only one.)

The bill—which would reserve solitary confinement only for instances when a kid an “immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility”—is legislation that should have passed easily this last summer when Lee first tried to get it through the state legislature.

Instead, it was defeated by spineless lawmakers who were evidently terrified of being called soft on crime.

In order to get a bit of perspective on the matter it helps to know the following:

*The United Nations has urged all countries to prohibit solitary confinement in juvenile cases.

*Six states—Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Alaska—have already banned the use of solitary confinement for any kind of “punitive reasons,” due to the harm it can cause to kids whose brains are still developing.

*National figures show that over half of the kids who committed suicide while in a correctional facility were in solitary confinement at the time they killed themselves. And 62 percent of the kids who succeeded at suicide, had a history of being placed in solitary confinement.

*Studies have also found that young people who were forced into solitary confinement had much higher rates of recidivism after they were released, as well as having a much higher likelihood for developing psychopathologies.

*In a lengthy report released last October by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, experts describe how “young people are psychologically unable to handle solitary confinement with the resilience of an adult. And, because they are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow. Solitary confinement can exacerbate, or make more likely,
short and long-term mental health problems.”

In other words, in all but the most extreme cases, solitary helps neither public safety, nor the kids themselves. Instead it is likely to cause psychological and/or emotional damage.

And yet California still uses the practice with cheerful abandon, both in state facilities and in local juvenile facilities like LA County’s juvenile probation camps.


Being in isolation to me felt like I was on an island all alone[,] dying a slow
death from the inside out.

—Letter from Kyle B. (pseudonym), from a California kid to Human Rights Watch,
May 3, 2012.

So how much do we use solitary on kids in California?

A 2011 audit of one California Division of Juvenile Justice facility, found that of 93 young people placed in restricted housing, 16 were held for a total of 78 days, during which they were only provided an average of 74 out-of-room minutes each day.

In LA County’s juvenile probation camps, although the stays are not as long as in the state facilities (usually not more than ten days), a number of LA County’s camps make liberal use of solitary confinement, or the SHU (special housing unit).

It seems the camps are sending kids to the SHU despite having been specifically ordered not to by the County’s long-standing Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Department of Justice, which states that probation officials should reserve “the use of isolation for only the most violent misconduct.” Even when a kid is out of control, the DOJ recommends strategies other than isolation, pointing out that putting a teenager in solitary causes “the youth’s risk of self-harm [to] increase,” and “the use of isolation provides no opportunity to address the decision-making or skill deficits that underlie the youth’s non-compliant behavior.”

Yet, despite more than six years of DOJ monitoring, many of LA’s camps have yet to get with the program.

To give you a quick idea of what we’re talking about: in a single month last fall, one LA County probation camp that houses approximately 60 kids on any given day, sent teenagers to the SHU 80 times.

By far the most common reasons for sending a teenager to solitary in the LA County probation camps are the catch-all categories of “disruption,” and “failure to follow instructions,” along with “fighting.” The more serious behavior issues like assault or attempted assault, which could warrant a short SHU stay according to Yee’s bill and the DOJ, were close to nonexistent as listed reasons for landing LA teenagers in isolation.

And in LA County’s camps “Failure to Follow Instructions” could be anything from talking back, to not moving quickly between one’s dorm and the cafeteria, to an unwillingness to eat one’s vegetables at meal time. (Yes, the non-vegetable-eating referral to the SHU really did occur.)


And so this bill, SB 61.

According to Yee’s office the provisions of SB 61 would:

*define solitary confinement as the involuntary placement in a room or cell in isolation from persons other than staff and attorneys.
*provide that solitary confinement shall only be used when a minor poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility, and all other less restrictive options have been exhausted.
*provide that a minor or ward shall only be held in solitary confinement for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk.
*provide additional restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for minors with suicidal or self-harming behavior.
*provide that clinical staff shall review minors or wards regularly to ensure that their physical and mental health is not endangered.
*empower existing county juvenile justice commissions to report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

One would think that, given given the pile of research on the negative affects of locking a kid in a room for 22-23 hours a day, except in the most extreme of circumstances, Yee’s bill would sail through the legislature with enthusiastic bi-partisan approval. But as I mentioned above, in 2012, that was far from the case.

Let us hope that 2013 will bring a better outcome.

We’re going to be tracking this bill, as well as continuing to look at the practice here in LA County, along with other regions.

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