Juvenile inmates often isolated nearly 24 hours straight

Juvenile inmates at California correctional facilities have been held in isolation nearly 24 hours straight on hundreds of occasions this year, in violation of state regulations.

An audit by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in March found multiple facilities operated by the Division of Juvenile Justice kept youth prisoners deemed a threat in their cells for all but 40 minutes a day. Auditors found Ventura Youth Correctional Facility, about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles, to be the worst offender.

The juveniles placed on “temporary detention” or "temporary intervention plans” can be placed in solitary confinement for 21 hours a day.

Youth facilities exceeded that limit 249 times from January through April, according to numbers provided to Nancy Campbell, who is appointed by the state courts to oversee the juvenile facilities. Campbell confirmed the findings [PDF] in a letter to the Prison Law Office last month. Campbell wrote:

Documentation shows that the most frequent failure to meet out-of-room requirements has occurred at Ventura Youth Correctional Facility. In the 14 weeks documented, there were 173 out of 1,453 incidents during which youth on TD [temporary detention] or TIP [temporary intervention plans] spent more than 21 of 24 hours confined to his or her rooms. Other DJJ facilities struggle to meet mandated services requirements as well: OH Close Youth Correctional Facility (43 out of 588 incidents); Preston Youth Correctional Facility (15 of 245 incidents); Southern Youth Correctional Reception Center and Clinic (10 of 198 incidents); and NA Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility (8 of 761 incidents).

The Prison Law Office has responded to the violations with a new motion in the lawsuit Farrell v. Cate, which the state settled with an agreement to reform mental health care at youth facilities in 2004. The filing seeks to force the juvenile justice division to comply with the 21-hour isolation limit.

“Those findings are consistent with what experts have been saying month after month, year after year, and the problem has not been solved,” Sara Norman, managing attorney at the Prison Law Office, told The Bay Citizen. “These are the problems that are hurting the youth the most, and we are out of patience.”

The problem, according to the audit, is much the same one faced by many California agencies. Juvenile justice has too few resources and too little staff.

“Living unit staff consistently reported that priority is given to providing services to youth participating in the regular program,” the report states. “Youth on TD are accommodated when time permits.”

California has just more than 1,000 juvenile inmates who have been convicted of serious crimes, called 707(b) offenses [PDF]. These crimes include murder, rape, drug sales, witness tampering and many others.

Putting a youth in prolonged isolation – a 23 and 1 program in juvenile justice division parlance – can have a “profound” impact on his or her well-being, the state’s Office of the Inspector General wrote in a 2000 report [PDF].

That document proves there have been problems with this practice for more than a decade.

“Twenty-six of the 70 wards (36 percent) said they did not receive the required one hour out of their room in each 24-hour period,” the inspector’s office wrote then. “Some wards said that time out of the room was occasionally cancelled, especially on weekends.”