The Short and Long Game on Ending Juvenile Solitary

“We’re going to end solitary confinement of juveniles, period, end of story,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, with a wry laugh.

He was discussing with Youth Services Insider the new Stop Solitary for Kids campaign, led by JPI and three other groups: Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP); Georgetown University’s Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (CJJR); and the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA).

Also signed on in support of the campaign: The American Correctional Association, which represents most state correctional and juvenile services agencies in the country.

YSI-MB-PageSchindler’s chuckle punctuated his statement in a way that anyone observing juvenile justice policy can understand. Many things seem eminently possible, such as getting basic federal legislation reauthorized or getting people to stop placing teenagers in a room for 23 of 24 hours each day

But for some reason, when it comes to juvenile justice, the ball has seemed very hard to roll down the hill of late, despite growing bipartisan agreement that the existing modus operandi stinks. And yet Schindler, and others, believe there are near and distant possibilities when it comes to solitary.

“There’s been increasing attention to the issue,” Schindler said. “It’s become increasingly ripe for this kind of campaign.”

Attention to juvenile isolation was spurred by a 2014 investigative piece on the use of solitary on teens at New York City’s Rikers Island, done by reporters Trey Bundy and Daffodil Altan. Rikers is an adult jail, but New York’s age of jurisdiction is 15, so it has an entire wing dedicated only to juvenile-age inmates.

More recently, President Obama made a largely symbolic gesture by banning the use of solitary confinement for all juveniles in the federal system. Federal prisons do not house juveniles at all, so that was a directive to the handful of local facilities that house federally convicted juveniles before they turn 18.

The short term goal is to roll up wins on reversing bad policy, getting state and local agencies to stop. CJJR will provide certificate-based training to juvenile agency leadership on changing policy, while CJCA provides technical assistance to systems interested in writing new policy and providing the inevitably necessary staff training.

JPI and CCLP will mostly work with state and local advocates in places considering anti-solitary legislation. Even in a state that wants to curb or eliminate solitary as policy, Schindler said, “it’s good to have laws codifying that.”

And that connects to the longer-term goal of the campaign: Roll up enough policy wins so that, eventually, solitary confinement can be challenged as unconstitutional.

“We want to reach a tipping point where there is so much momentum that it becomes the professional standard,” said CCLP Executive Director Mark Soler.

The theory, Schindler said, is that ending the use of solitary for juveniles in enough places will render it a practice that amounts to a “substantial departure from accepted professional judgment in the field.”

In that scenario, he argues, litigators can challenge the constitutionality of juvenile solitary wherever it’s still used because the practice will be “far afield” of standard practice.

Marc Schindler
Marc Schindler, Executive Director, Justice Policy Institute. Photo: Justice Policy Institute

To back up a bit, it’s important to understand what exactly is being taken on. Solitary confinement is the practice of isolating a prisoner from the general population, and it can be done for any number of reasons emanating from three central causes, in our opinion:

  • Punishment: Offender X hits another person, or acts out in some way, and the consequence is isolation.
  • Short-term risk: An offender is in specific and imminent danger from others, or is specifically endangering others, and needs to be briefly isolated so that staff can intervene.
  • Long-term risk: An offender is “different” in some way that makes staff fear an inevitable problem for them or by them in the standard setting.

That middle category, short-term risk, is more or less not in question here.

“We don’t mean that no kid could ever be placed in a locked room by himself,” Schindler said. A comfortable guideline for appropriate confinement exists, he said: the standard for participants in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which you can read here.

It is the isolation traced to punishment and an inability to accommodate special needs that the campaign seeks to root out. Schindler saw both first-hand when he and Vinny Schiraldi were brought in by the D.C. government to reform its juvenile justice agency, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, in 2005.

“It was pervasive,” he said, describing a unit called “A-10,” featuring 20 solitary units where youths were on lockdown for up to 23 hours per day.

“You had kids sent there for number of different reasons. Discipline, which was allowed.

It also included putting kids there who had mental health issues, and they couldn’t manage on other units. And sexual orientation: a kid who was gay might be in danger in another unit, so [solitary] was a protective custody situation.

Like many other juvenile facility pods, the names of the youths on A-10 were listed at the control center. Also listed, he recalled, were the reasons each youth was on the unit.

“It was really horrific,” he said. “Why should we be surprised that half of the suicides of juveniles involve kids who have been in isolation.”

So where does the ball start rolling to curb solitary? Schindler said in some states and counties it can be accomplished by fiat if the director is sold on it. In other systems, legislation will probably be necessary.

Sometimes practices within walls are set in negotiations with unions, for example. The rules of confinement in Washington, D.C. were established as part of a settlement in the 1986 Jerry M class action lawsuit against the city.

“The policy was fairly decent, but not as strong as it could have been,” Schindler said. “The problem was the policy was not being followed at all.

So one of the things we did was just started to enforce rules,” Schindler said. “There was significant pushback from staff…that we were changing rules. We said, ‘We haven’t changed any rules; these are the rules that were in place.’”

This will be a real challenge for this campaign; patrolling any policy wins for – to borrow from the parlance of Stephen Colbert – “truthiness.” Tis far easier a task for a state or county director or legislature to decree an end to solitary than, you know, to actually ensure that the many juvenile facilities under its control are living up to said decree.

Another challenge is that overuse of solitary is not a problem that exists in … wait for it … isolation!

“Typically it’s … indicative of larger facility problems like understaffing, lack of quality programming,” Schindler said. So stopping the use of solitary, in that scenario, takes away a bad option from staff who are left with no options.

In a meeting with the Justice Department after last week’s kickoff, Schindler said one state agency director lamented that there were times where he’d rather put a kid into room confinement than have staff lay hands on them.

“The larger goal is to have neither happen,” Schindler said, “and that means larger cultural change.”

Veteran juvenile justice reformer Paul Demuro took on that notion in a 2014 white paper about abolishing isolation in juvenile justice facilities. He uses solitary policy reforms in Louisiana and Mississippi as a way to describe the broader shifts in play as both systems tried to lower their reliance on solitary. Click here for YSI’s write-up on what one Louisiana parish did to lower confinement episodes.

You can click here for a breakdown, and then an exhaustive profiling, of state policies on the solitary confinement of juveniles.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at