The use of seclusion and restraint for children with special needs in our nation’s schools has received national attention. These practices have been deemed as cruel and dangerous, and various pieces of legislation have been proposed to eliminate their use. Yet, these practices are being used on an ongoing basis on our nation’s incarcerated youth. Up to 81,000 teens are incarcerated in juvenile facilities on any given night, and an additional 10,000 teens are in adult prisons. According to the ACLU, which released a report on solitary confinement in October, a significant number of these facilities isolate youth for days, weeks, months, or even years. The use of solitary confinement, according to the ACLU, causes “anguish, provokes serious mental and physical health problems, and works against rehabilitation for teenagers.”
One of the most tragic outcomes for incarcerated youth is suicide, and half of teen suicides occur while youth are placed in solitary isolation. A position paper published by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, which expresses concern about the high rate and potential underreporting of teen suicides in jails, states that further research is needed to delineate better the relationship between suicide and isolation. Yet, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (5), the research is in already. The potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged use of solitary confinement on these “developmentally vulnerable” adolescents are “well recognized” and include depression, anxiety, and psychosis.
Incarcerated youth are already battered and traumatized before they even enter juvenile facilities. Up to 70% of these youth have diagnosable mental health disorders; another 60% have substance abuse issues. Additionally, many of these youth are the victims of abuse. Hayes examined 110 suicides of incarcerated teens that occurred between 1995 and 1999. Of these youth, 44.3% had been emotionally abused, 34.2% were physically abused, and another 27.8% were sexually abused. Of these victims, 85% died during waking hours.
According to Hayes, almost half of the youth (47.3%) who committed suicide were placed in isolation not for threats or actual abuse of other inmates or staff (42.1%) but for failure to follow rules or “inappropriate behavior.” Others have highlighted the concern about what constitutes “appropriate” use of seclusion in juvenile lock-ups. The Center for Children’s Law and Policy testified last June before a Senate Judiciary Committee, which was reviewing the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities. According to the Center, solitary confinement is appropriate only when an adolescent poses a threat of imminent harm to himself or others and should last no longer than it takes him to regain self-control and no longer pose a threat to himself or others.
Many juvenile correctional facilities are voluntarily attempting to reduce the use of solitary confinement. In 1995 the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) developed a program called “Performance-based Standards,” which was implemented to improve conditions of youth in confinement. PbS has set national standards (up to 100) for participating facilities (ie; correction facilities, detention facilities, and assessment centers) and then collects data twice a year from these facilities. The PbS criteria for appropriate use of isolation of adolescents is absolutely explicit: youth should be isolated or confined to their rooms “only to protect the youth from harming himself or others, and if used, should be brief and supervised.” Any incidents longer than 15 minutes are considered “reportable” according to PbS. Facilities that use PbS standards are reporting successes. Since 2008, the use of isolation has decreased in all facilities. From October 2008 to April 2012, the average time youth spent in isolation was cut in half, from 32 hours in 2008 to 14 hours in 2012.
The ACLU, in their October report titled “Too Many Teens in Solitary Confinement,” urges a complete ban of solitary confinement for all youth under age 18, prohibition of housing teens in adult facilities which are unequipped to meet their developmental needs, and strict limits on all forms of isolation and development of discipline “proportional to the infraction.” Given that Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, called “zero segregation” unrealistic, participation in the PbS program seems like an extremely constructive approach to addressing this issue. To date, 162 facilities in 29 states and DC are participating in the program. These facilities have 10,450 youths in their custody. This is a tremendous start, yet approximately 80,000 youth are currently incarcerated in more than 2000 non-PbS facilities. Participation in the program is not mandatory.
No one is arguing that youth offenders should not be held accountable for their actions. But it must happen in humane, fair, and effective ways. Incarcerated youth have an extraordinarily high rate of mental health issues as well as special needs. What they need is treatment, appropriate education, and effective rehabilitation. None of these things can happen while a youth is in isolation.