Attorney General Holder on Juvenile Solitary Confinement

 

In his weekly video address, on May 13, 2014, United States Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out against the use of solitary confinement for the routine punishment of incarcerated youths. Holder cited its detrimental effect on the development of young people and their ability to thrive when released, and remarked that the effect was especially dire for youths with mental health issues stating that incarceration was there to “…rehabilitate, not merely to warehouse and forget.

Mr. Holder has done his homework.  As he mentioned, 47% of the juvenile facilities used for incarceration admitted to putting youth in solitary confinement for up to four hours when they misbehaved. Many youth, however, were placed into solitary for as long as twenty-three hours a day in tiny rooms with small windows “no wider than their hands.” Holder noted that 50% of the suicides that happen in juvenile facilities occur while the youth was in solitary, and that 62% of the youths who committed suicide had a history of being placed in solitary confinement. He closed by stating that his office is committed to working with facilities around the nation to find alternatives to solitary when a young person acts out.

It was difficult to determine what exactly Attorney General Holder is planning to do.  Alternatives to solitary as well as grant money to implement them could be on the way, but as often is the case, Holder’s statement fell short of an actual mandate disallowing the practice.  It is commendable that Washington tries to encourage the voluntary action of state officers, as doing so minimizes the authoritarian overtones of an edict from the capital.  But to really work against solitary confinement, which is a historical practice dating back to the earliest days of the American justice system, an actual federal initiative with compliance from youth incarceration facilities nationwide will be necessary.