The “Torture” of Juvenile Solitary

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Efforts to outlaw juvenile solitary confinement in California will be revived early next year under a bill that describes such practices as “torture.”

Sen. Mark Leno, the veteran Bay Area lawmaker who authored an earlier bill that failed in the California legislature in September, plans to introduce his new version under the title: Stop Torture of Children Act.

“We’re calling it what it is,” Leno said in an interview with The Crime Report. “It’s an outrage that we’re still having this debate.”

Ironically, California corrections officials had agreed to significantly scale back the use of solitary confinement in state prisons a week before Leno’s bill failed in September, the result of a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison.

But the practice is still allowed in juvenile detention facilities. The earlier bill, known simply by its number, SB 124, would have banned the use of solitary confinement as punishment and limit to four hours the amount of time a youth who poses a safety threat could be locked in a room.

The proposed “Torture of Children” Act represents the fifth attempt at such legislation.

The previous bills faced strong opposition from the state’s prison guards union — whose members work in state-run Department of Juvenile Justice facilities — and from county probation chiefs, who run local juvenile facilities. Opponents argued that these facilities don’t practice solitary confinement. They prefer the term “separation” and say it’s a necessary tool to contain out-of-control kids.

Leno said he made a dozen amendments to SB 124 to address opponents’ concerns. In its final version, for instance, the bill allowed for juveniles to voluntarily place themselves in a “time out.” And, if after four hours a juvenile still posed an immediate threat to staff or other wards, he or she could be confined for another four hours.

But the amendments got Leno nowhere.

Leno doubts the new bill, which is still in draft form, will include those provisions. It’s something he plans to discuss with sponsors over the next several weeks.

Regulations governing California juvenile facilities urge the limited use of room confinement, but the regulations fall short, said Jennifer Kim, director of programs for the San Francisco-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a sponsor of the bill.

“If regulations were sufficient to provide protections, we wouldn’t have done the bill,” she said. “There isn’t anything to prevent a 23-hour lock-up.”

Twenty states ban the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities. In California, it’s banned only in Contra Costa County, the result of a lawsuit filed in 2013 and settled this past May. One of the plaintiffs in that case, a juvenile referred to in court documents as “W.B.,” was locked in a small cell for 100 days, where he suffered a mental breakdown and ultimately had to be hospitalized. The terms of the Contra Costa settlement are similar to Leno’s bill.

A 2009 national study commissioned by the Justice Department found that nearly two-thirds of juvenile detainees who commit suicide have a history of room confinement. Numerous other studies have shown that even a brief period of isolation can exacerbate mental illness and underlying behavioral problems in kids.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon underscored this at a press event last week, where he urged support of Leno’s bill, saying that isolating a juvenile instead of helping him work through his problems leads to recidivism.

Amy Fettig, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, called Leno’s proposed bill “one of the most progressive pieces of legislation that we’ve seen anywhere in the country.”

“If it passes, it will be a milestone in the effort to end the practice of solitary confinement on kids,” she told The Crime Report.

Kelly Davis is a 2015 John Jay/Langeloth Mental Health & Justice Reporting Fellow and a freelance reporter in San Diego who writes about the criminal justice system and vulnerable populations. She welcomes your comments.


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