A new report from the Juvenile Law Center highlights the harms of solitary confinement on youth in juvenile lock-up facilities and presents recommendations to end the practice.
In Unlocking Youth: Legal Strategies to End Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities, Jessica Feierman, Karen U. Lindell and Natane Eaddy focus on the harms of solitary confinement for youth and present a comprehensive plan of policy, litigation and legal defense strategies against the practice.
The report relies on surveys of public defenders and advocates; legal and developmental research; and conversations with youth, families and community members to form its recommendations.
Solitary confinement is the involuntary restriction of a youth alone in a cell or room for any reason other than a temporary response when youth behavior presents an immediate risk of physical harm, according to the report.
However, research finds that solitary confinement is used and defined differently across the nation’s facilities and, in many cases, is characterized under different names. Further, the reasons why youth are placed in solitary confinement also vary across the state, from punitive and protective reasons to administrative reasons.
In addition, the report’s national survey data from 2016 demonstrates an excessive use of solitary confinement. The report found more than two-thirds of public defender respondents reported they had clients who spent time in solitary confinement for periods ranging from a few hours to seven months. More than two-thirds of respondents also reported that youth never received a hearing before being placed in solitary confinement.
Beyond its four walls, solitary confinement deprives youth from educational opportunities and fundamentally interferes with youth’s rehabilitative rights under certain courts in the justice system.
In fact, the report finds that solitary confinement not only prohibits educational opportunity but also psychologically harms youth in the process.
Conversations with youth and psychological research both revealed that solitary confinement could exacerbate many mental health conditions that commonly emerge in adolescence and early adulthood, including severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia and psychosis, according to the report.
The harms of solitary confinement come from the lack of social interaction for youth. Solitary confinement interferes with a youth’s ability to “develop a functioning adult social identity,” thus making it harder for them to reintegrate into society upon release.
As a result, the authors provide legal strategies to prevent the use of solitary confinement.
One such strategy is prohibiting use of solitary confinement for administrative and punitive purposes and only allowing it under necessary circumstances for the youth’s protection. If solitary confinement must be used, authors recommend a maximum limit of three hours in confinement. To standardize solitary confinement across the country and prevent its continued use under different names, the authors recommend clearly defining the conditions of confinement such as allowable visitation, the reasons for placing youth in confinement and the restrictions of the practice.
The authors also offer legal strategies to eliminate solitary confinement for youth. Among these is the use of education claims and arguments emphasizing 14th amendment rights to challenge orders of solitary confinement.
To ensure defense lawyers are better informed about a youth’s experiences in detention, authors recommend the lawyers ask facility staff targeted questions that can determine whether a youth is detained under healthy conditions.
Last, authors encourage community members to partake in a greater reform effort by supporting national movements to close youth prisons and, instead, integrate youth in their communities instead.
Read the full Juvenile Law Center report here.