Legislation would Limit Use of Solitary Confinement at Juvenile Facilities

Human Rights Advocates, Elected Officials declare that Solitary confinement increases rates of recidivism, mental illness and suicide

For Immediate Release: 2/24/2012
Contact: Abel Habtegeorgis
Media Relations Manager
(510) 428-3939 x232

SACRAMENTO – On 2/24/12, Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) introduced legislation that will define and limit the use of solitary confinement at state and county juvenile correctional facilities. The Ella Baker Center worked closely with Senator Yee to develop this crucial bill. 

While the United Nations has called on all countries to prohibit solitary confinement in juvenile cases, the harsh practice is used rampantly in state and local juvenile facilities throughout California. Six states – including Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Alaska – ban solitary confinement for “punitive reasons.”

“The use of solitary confinement of a child is wrong and should be used only in the most extreme situations,” said Yee, who is a child psychologist. “The studies are clear – holding juveniles in solitary increases recidivism rates, exacerbates existing mental illness, and makes youth more likely to attempt suicide. Solitary confinement does nothing to help rehabilitate and thus SB 1363 is necessary to limit the cruel practice.”

Among the provisions of SB 1363, the bill would:

Define solitary confinement as placement in a room or cell for 16 or more hours per day.

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 required to address the safety risk, provided that the mental and physical health of the minor or ward is not compromised.

Prohibit solitary confinement for minors with suicidal or self-harming behavior.

Provide that minors on solitary confinement shall not be deprived of certain rights, including visitation during regular hours.

Provide that clinical staff shall review minors on solitary confinement daily.

“Solitary confinement is torture,” said Jennifer Kim, Esq, Policy Advocate for Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “It has no place in a system that is mandated to provide treatment and rehabilitation.  SB 1363 is a historic opportunity to curb this abusive practice.”

Nationally, over half of the youth who committed suicide while in a correctional facility were in solitary confinement at the time, and 62 percent had a history of being placed in solitary confinement. Research also shows that individuals who were forced into solitary confinement had much higher rates of recidivism as well as developing psycho-pathologies.

“My godson, who was incarcerated at 15, had many personal challenges in his life during his time in [Division of Juvenile Justice] DJJ, such as the death of his mother,” said LaNita Mitchell. “I remember when he was put into solitary confinement. I remember being so worried about him because the change in his demeanor was so obviously different that I was worried about him coming out of solitary and being able to function normally. Many young people go into these torture dungeons troubled, and come out damaged for life.”

“Locking a teen in a room alone for 23 out of 24 hours a day is no way to help a young person get on the right track,” said Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate for Human Rights Watch. “The juvenile justice system should use every minute it has with a youth to create opportunities for education, treatment, and personal growth.”

“My son has made mistakes in his life,” said Maria Sanchez, a parent leader of Families for Books Not Bars. “But he wasn't sentenced to be tortured. He wasn't sentenced to sit in a cold cell by himself all day with no help. I want him to gain the skills he needs to make the right choices. I want him to breathe some fresh air and to have enough food to eat. I want him to get help when he gets hurt. But how can any of this happen if he's sitting in a cell all day?”

 “My son was in the DJJ for more than 4 years and much of that time was in isolation,” said Alex Polo who also works with Families for Books Not Bars. “We visited him weekly and we could tell when he had been isolated. On those visits, he was silent and lost in thought. Any progress he made was lost when he was placed in solitary.”