Solitary confinement is one of the most common and harmful practices in youth detention and commitment facilities. Federal data show that over 30 percent of young people report experiencing solitary confinement, and almost half of youth prisons and jails report using isolation to manage youth behavior, resulting in thousands of young people being held in solitary every day.
Solitary confinement is problematic for many reasons. When youth are isolated in facilities, they do not receive the education, programming, mental health services, and treatment we know can make the difference in their lives.
It is a practice that disparately impacts youth of color and other youth populations, including LGBTQI and gender non-conforming youth. Isolation can lead to tragic outcomes, too. One prominent study indicates that more than 50 percent of suicides in youth facilities occur while young people are held in isolation.
To add to the typical challenges of running secure youth facilities, we are living through a public health crisis like nothing seen in over a century, a pandemic that has not spared youth and staff in detention and commitment facilities.
According to publicly available data collected by The Sentencing Project, as of February 22, 2021, there were 3,753 youth in juvenile facilities nationally who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, spanning 41 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico. We know that many facility staff have been infected as well, with at least five deaths tragically occurring as a result.
While recent federal and state efforts to ramp up vaccinations and issue public health mandates provide us with hope, the reality is that the pandemic persists. During this challenging time, we must not relax our efforts to support incarcerated youth and staff.
Even prior to the pandemic there were far too many youth incarcerated in the U.S.. With the increased dangers caused by COVID-19, jurisdictions across the country should be doing all they can to reduce the number of youth confined in secure facilities.
For those youth who do remain confined during this time, the risk of being subjected to solitary confinement is especially concerning.
While facility administrators grapple with how to best keep youth and staff safe from the virus, the challenges are daunting. Some facilities have been able to engage teachers to deliver live instruction, for example; but others have instead resorted to providing instruction via videoconference and educational packets, resulting in inadequate education for youth.
Although some facilities have made heroic efforts to maintain and even increase family contact through the use of video and other technologies, others have not. This type of isolation has resulted in young people across the country, most of them Black and Brown, being cut off from contact with family members and loved ones right at the time young people need those supports the most.
It is critical that we find ways to reduce the number of young people confined and to keep those who remain incarcerated safe without resorting to solitary confinement. To do so, it is imperative that advocates and administrators come together to craft strategies to protect youth and staff.
Those strategies should ensure that youth stay connected with their families, receive vibrant education, programming, health services and treatment, and prepare them to effectively transition home by linking them to important community supports.
As former administrators, we share a vision of a juvenile justice system designed to support youth to thrive. At the heart of this approach is a commitment to help young people develop the skills necessary to succeed, build hope for the future, and forge long-lasting connections to caring individuals who will be there for them as they transition to adulthood.
In our view, these goals cannot be achieved if we continue to incarcerate far too many youth or place young people in facilities that rely on solitary confinement.
As partners on the Stop Solitary for Kids Campaign (SSK), our respective organizations, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and the Justice Policy Institute, are dedicated to ending the practice of solitary confinement of young people.
Through the generous support of Arnold Ventures, in the next few years our organizations, as well as our partners at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and the Council of Juvenile Justice Administrators, will be developing a series of new resources to increase awareness of the issue and assist facility leaders and staff across the country move away from the use of isolation.
This includes providing technical assistance on the topic to communities using SSK’s Room Confinement Assessment Tool; a new Certificate Program in Washington, D.C., where selected jurisdictions will receive training and technical assistance to eliminate isolation in their facilities; a new law school course on solitary confinement; and dedicated efforts to enhance data collection on the practice, particularly as it relates to racial bias.
We hope that through these efforts we can continue to build and support a cadre of communities dedicated to eliminating the use of solitary confinement.
During these trying times, let’s not lose sight of the thousands of youth in facilities throughout the U.S. who need our support.
Instead of isolating these children, we should be doing everything we can to promote positive connections in their lives. That includes building vital connections to their families, to caring juvenile justice staff and partners, and to all the individuals who work to meet their needs and position them for long-term success.
Michael Umpierre is the Director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and previously served as the Chief of Staff of the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.
Marc Schindler is the Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute and previously served as General Counsel and Interim Director of the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.