At the end of last year, two federal criminal justice bills that impact the use of solitary confinement for youth passed on the same day—the First Step Act and the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). The JJDPA requires states to include information on reducing solitary confinement in their juvenile justice plans and record data on the use of solitary. The First Step Act, which limits the use of solitary to brief crisis situations, only applies to youth in federal custody. It’s time to make sure that state governments follow suit.
Research and experience make clear that solitary confinement of youth is harmful and ineffective. It’s often called different things—“room confinement,” “isolation,” “separation” or “seclusion.” Regardless of the name, it amounts to the involuntary placement of a young person alone in a room or other area for any reason other than a short-term safety measure to prevent immediate physical harm. We know that being in solitary is harmful to the mental health of young people. Federal research shows that over half of youth who commit suicide in juvenile facilities do so in solitary confinement. There is no evidence to show that solitary reduces assaults or negative behavior in youth. In fact, experiences in many juvenile facilities show that solitary actually contributes to a culture of violence and negativity.
Teenage brains are developing brains. Solitary confinement can lead to dangerous and debilitating effects—including anxiety, depression, psychosis and feelings of hopelessness—that impair brain development. Many justice-involved youths already have mental illnesses or trauma histories, and solitary only exacerbates these issues. And the psychological and developmental effects continue long after a child is removed from solitary, harming their ability to rehabilitate themselves and become fully functional adults. Education, family relationships and treatment opportunities also suffer when youth are placed in solitary. What’s more, youth in solitary confinement aren’t learning anything. When locked inside a cell, their brains are not developing like other teens’. They are not learning important skills such as emotional control or appropriate social behavior. Reducing solitary confinement can help youth learn these skills so they can successfully return home and build safer communities.
Despite all this, solitary confinement is still a widespread problem. Almost half of all secure juvenile facilities use isolation to control behavior, and most states don’t forbid the practice. Ending solitary confinement for youth is a challenging process.
Stakeholders who want to eliminate the practice may wonder, how can we eliminate solitary confinement while keeping youth and staff safe? How can we hold youth accountable? Fortunately, there are answers to these questions. “Not in Isolation: How to Reduce Room Confinement While Increasing Safety in Youth Facilities” is a new report from the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators that addresses these concerns head on. The report uses real examples from three juvenile state agencies and one county detention center to give practical tips, insights and tools on how solitary confinement can be reduced while increasing public safety.
The four selected jurisdictions have made culture and policy changes to prioritize reduced room confinement. For example, the Division of Youth Services in Colorado hired more staff and introduced a trauma-informed model of care: Staff now check on youth who are secluded every 5-15 minutes to try to re-engage them in programming. Massachusetts made changes to their own policies to help youth process their emotions using dialectical behavior therapy and create tools to get them out of room confinement in less than 50 minutes on average. Rudy Kolaco, a shift administrator at Massachusetts DYS, says, “it’s safer now from when I started seventeen years ago…less restraints are happening because staff are communicating between themselves and talking to the kids, building the relationships with the kids to make them understand that we are not here just to put hands on them.”
Ending solitary confinement is possible. Youth who must be separated in crisis situations due to a risk of immediate bodily harm do not have to be left alone for long periods of time. And in the jurisdictions featured in “Not in Isolation,” solitary is never used as a punishment. As a result, youth, staff and our communities are safer and better off.