The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted today to approve a measure that would curb the use of solitary confinement for youth in the county’s system of juvenile halls and camps.
Introduced by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, the measure will end the practice of placing youth in restrictive housing in Department of Probation facilities. In some limited situations, youth who present an immediate danger to themselves or others could also be placed in “cool-down” areas, where the youth could be temporarily separated from others in a calming setting and under the supervision of a mental health professional.
Calling solitary confinement “cruel and inhumane,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl described the practice as out of step with evidence-based ways to work with children.
“It doesn’t improve behavior, it doesn’t secure public safety and it doesn’t promote rehabilitation,” Kuehl said. “Those who experience solitary confinement recidivate at higher numbers.”
Los Angeles County has the nation’s largest juvenile justice system, with about 1,200 youth detained in its three halls and 13 camps. When youths at the county’s juvenile detention facilities end up in a special housing unit (SHU), they are isolated from human contact for as long as 23 hours a day, often in shoddy and severe settings, according to advocates.
In February, Los Angeles County Probation Commissioner Azael “Sal” Martinez released a report that documented the deplorable conditions and practices at the county’s juvenile halls, including the long-term use of solitary confinement as a punitive measure for relatively minor infractions like trading food.
“We can’t afford to treat youngsters this manner and expect that when they get out they’re going to be O.K.,” Solis said.
Advocates who gathered at the Board of Supervisors meeting in support of the measure said that the use of solitary confinement has had disturbing consequences for the youth detained in Probation Department facilities.
Theodore Snyder has spent the past decade visiting his son Tedi across several different correctional facilities in Southern California. After being arrested for attempted murder at age 15 and convicted in an adult court, Tedi was detained at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. Now 25, Tedi resides at the Calipatria State Prison.
Snyder, 72, said his son was placed in solitary confinement for about three of the four years he resided at the hall. At one time, all the youth in the camp were put into solitary confinement because Probation Department officials deemed their involvement in the adult system a dangerous risk, he said.
While Tedi was in solitary confinement, guards would slip worksheets for his classes in the narrow slit of his cell door in the hopes he would keep up with his schoolwork. But the guards would also prevent Tedi and other youth in solitary confinement from accessing bathrooms.
Snyder said the practices took a terrible toll on his son.
“He felt like he was buried in a hole,” Snyder said of his son. “He lost 20 pounds while he was in there. I used to smuggle chicken burritos when I would go visit him.”
Snyder and advocates across the country are part of an expanding national campaign to curtail the practice of solitary confinement. In January, President Barack Obama prohibited the use of solitary confinement for youth in the federal prison system, except for special circumstances. And in 2015, in the wake of investigative reporting that documented the use of restrictive housing conditions for youth at New York City’s Rikers Island complex, New York City banned solitary confinement for youth 21 and younger.
Children’s Defense Fund-California Executive Director Alex Johnson says that Board of Supervisors vote represents a significant moment for Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice system.
“It represents an ongoing paradigm shift in how we view and treat the young people within the care of the county,” Johnson said. “It’s another huge step in helping the county and the Probation Department turn toward more meaningful measures—mental health interventions, counseling and restorative justice practices that have been proven to help young people rehabilitate, which at the end of the day is the goal upon which the juvenile justice system was premised.”
Los Angeles County Probation Department will roll out the new practices starting with three of its facilities. The Central Juvenile Hall, Camp McNair at the Challenger facility and Camp Scott must adopt the new policy by May 30. The county’s remaining juvenile facilities will implement the new practices by September 30.
The county will receive help from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Center on Coordinated Assistance for States, which will provide training and technical assistance.
But the new plan to limit restrictive housing measures has led to questions about how staff at the county’s halls and camps will implement the new policy.
“In the case of a child who has mental illness, [we have] to protect that child from his own behaviors, to protect others from that child’s behavior and to protect staff,” said Andrea Gordon, president of a union that represents Los Angeles County Probation Department managers. “Nobody should have to die for a paycheck.”
Interim Los Angeles County Probation Chief Cal Remington said the department has already been moving toward phasing out the use of solitary confinement. But deceasing the use of restrictive housing will require significant buy-in from frontline staff.
“We have to create an environment where staff is very comfortable with the new approach, where they feel they do have tools,” Remington said. “But I’m hoping with the training and technical assistance, we’re going to meet that challenge.”
The Probation Department will report back on progress implementing the new policy in three months, along with ways the philanthropic community could provide support to youth in detention and a closer look at the way the county provides mental health support to the youth in its halls and camps.