Few issues in juvenile detention are as controversial as solitary confinement. Noting research documenting how solitary confinement can contribute to mental illness and self-harm, the Obama administration banned solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system in 2016. Some states have followed suit, and detention facilities across the country are re-evaluating their use of the practice.
Many stories surrounding juvenile solitary confinement evoke horrible images—youth trapped in dark, dingy rooms, no contact with the outside, for days and weeks on end. Such conditions may in fact exist at certain facilities—but this is not solitary confinement, it is cruel and unusual punishment. In contrast, the act of utilizing solitary confinement remains a humane, ethical and necessary practice in many detention facilities—when used appropriately.
What It Is & What It Isn’t
Understanding juvenile solitary confinement begins with defining what it is. In California, we call it “room confinement,” but there are other names too—segregation, separation, special management. Perhaps the best description is “involuntary isolation.” It’s the act of removing a person from the group or the detained population and placing them in a room, typically by themselves, for a specified reason. But it doesn’t matter what you call it—what matters is the reason(s) for the action(s) surrounding the act and use of separating a youth from the group.
Involuntary isolation is used for several reasons:
• An attempt to correct behavior (discipline)
• To conduct an investigation immediately following an incident such as a physical altercation
• To stop the spread of a contagion, such as chicken pox
• To protect a youth in danger (protective custody)
Involuntary isolation should never be used as a “punishment.” At times, the line between discipline and punishment can seem blurry. I think of it like this: Discipline is positive and constructive. It draws on cognitive behavior theory to help youth learn to think before acting by understanding there are consequences to actions. Punishment is reactive, often done in anger or to make the youth “pay” for their mistakes.
When it comes to discipline, involuntary isolation of juveniles should be a last resort. Facility policies should lay out clear behavior expectations and the consequences of not meeting those expectations. A series of escalating forms of interventions should be used before considering isolation.
Following the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act of 1974, detention facilities were placed in a quandary. In an attempt to protect juveniles from abuse, the Act required sight and sound separation of juveniles and adult prisoners. Youth could no longer be housed with adult offenders, but most facilities were not equipped with separate areas for youth. As a result, youth often wound up isolated “23 and one”—a phrase indicating the youth would be locked down for 23 hours with one hour a day for hygiene and exercise. It was later shown that youth in these conditions were 36 times more likely to commit suicide than juveniles housed in juvenile detention facilities. The Jail Removal initiative was enacted to get juveniles out of adult facilities and out of isolation for simply being a juvenile.
The act of utilizing solitary confinement remains a humane, ethical and necessary practice in many detention facilities—when used appropriately.
Today, we know “23 and one” is not the right approach, and as a result many states legislate restrictions on the amount of time youth can remain in involuntary isolation. In California, room confinement is limited to four hours or less, after which the youth must be reassessed. The confinement can be extended, but documented authorization must be obtained every four hours, and staff must also develop an individualized plan that includes goals and objectives to be met to reintegrate the youth back into the general population.
The American Correctional Association standard for juvenile disciplinary confinement is five days, although many states legislate a limit of 24 hours. The four-hour rule is also gaining momentum, part of a national trend to limit solitary confinement. Regardless of the facility’s specific time guidelines, frequent reviews are essential. Administrators and staff with the youth’s best interests in mind are continually asking, does this youth need to remain in isolation? How can they rejoin the group and be successful?
A policy on involuntary isolation of juveniles should also contain additional guidelines to protect the youth’s rights and safety. These include:
• Applicable disciplinary procedures. If the reason for the isolation is disciplinary, the youth must be afforded due process in a timely manner. This includes written notice, a fair hearing, an opportunity to be heard and an opportunity to appeal.
• Regular safety checks. Lexipol policy recommends safety checks be done no less than every 15 minutes, staggered so they are unpredictable. Sometimes conditions warrant conducting a check every 5 or 10 minutes or less. Video can supplement but never substitute for checks.
• Access to bedding, daily hygiene and full nutrition. There are no disciplinary diets for youth offenders. They must have at least one hour of large muscle activity daily, access to medical services and mental health counseling if needed. Bedding can be removed if the youth is using it in a manner that presents a threat to safety or security, but only during non-sleeping hours.
• Education. Youth in involuntary isolation must still receive programs and services, the most important being education because it’s critical to preventing a youth offender from becoming an adult offender. Education doesn’t mean just tossing some reading material in a room or piping in books on tape. It means facetime with an instructor.
Clearly, juvenile involuntary isolation demands a host of resources. In some cases the only way to keep the youth safe is to have them on constant one-on-one supervision.
You must document everything (who, what, when, why, how), even if confinement is used just as a cooling off period for an hour or less.
Whatever the situation, documentation is critical. You must document everything (who, what, when, why, how), even if confinement is used just as a cooling off period for an hour or less—why a youth is in involuntary isolation, what you’ve done to ensure that involuntary isolation is used as last resort, their state of mind during every safety check, how you tried to engage with them, what they were doing when you checked, any actions you took as a result of the safety check (e.g., referred to behavioral/mental health).
A good facility administrator will review this documentation every time isolation is used, looking for trends. Is involuntary isolation used more frequently on a certain shift or by certain staff? Is there a way we can reduce using it, or do we need to use it more?
The Goal: Safety & Security for All
Detention facility administrators are tasked with ensuring the safety and security of the facility—which includes the youth and the staff. To maintain order, sometimes it becomes necessary to remove a youth from the group. If staff determine involuntary isolation is appropriate, having the proper guidelines and safeguards in place helps everyone focus on the mission of supporting and caring for the youth so they can grow into well-adjusted, productive citizens.