Nearly Half Of Juvenile Centers Use Isolation As A Form Of Control
by Casey Quinlan, ThinkProgress
August 21, 2016
A West Virginia mother whose 16-year-old son was struggling with ADHD wanted to get him services but wasn’t sure what to do. The assistant principal at her son’s school suggested she file an incorrigibility petition — a status offense — against her son, whom we’ll call John, so he would be eligible for those services.
But John didn’t get any kind of help after his mother filed the petition. Instead, he was put on probation, and then in secure detention, and eventually on psychotropic medication. After being put on the new medication, John began to get into fights with other juveniles and was eventually placed in isolation for several months in secure detention.
John’s mother just wanted to get him help — not get him involved with the juvenile justice system. But according to Mishi Faruqee, the national field director of the Youth First Initiative who recounted John’s story to ThinkProgress, this situation is all too common.
All too often, when young people either spray graffiti or defy authority or skip school, they don’t receive help, such as counseling or academic services, but fall deeper and deeper into the juvenile justice system. It is also fairly common for staff to use isolation as a form of control, as staff likely did with John by placing him in isolation. Almost half of training schools and juvenile facilities use isolation to control the behavior of teens, and 62% of training schools use physical restraints, according to data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that was released last week.
The Obama administration has recently brought more attention to the issue of isolation in juvenile facilities, banning federal prisons from keeping juveniles in solitary confinement. Though this ban only affects a relatively small number of juveniles being held in detention, advocates say it sends a strong message opposing isolation. But there is still a lot of work to do.
Isolation may seem insignificant to a person who hasn’t experienced it, but putting someone in a room for hours without anything to do — without so much as a magazine — can be a traumatic experience, especially for juveniles.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry put out a statement in 2012 asserting that measures such as solitary confinement of juveniles could be responsible for anxiety, depression, and even psychosis — and that isolation puts them in even more risk because their minds are still developing.
“The experience is traumatic and depressing and can have an enormous impact on kids’ mental health,” said Mark Soler, executive director for the Center for Children’s Law and Policy. “And of course children have a different sense of time than adults do. They perceive time as being longer because they don’t have the experience of adults, so it can be a very traumatic experience and can have lifelong consequences.”
Why staff isolate youth
Corrections officers don’t usually isolate juveniles as a whim, Soler said. In most cases, he said officers truly believe that isolation is the best tool they have to control a facility and keep youth— and themselves — safe. They may believe there is no other way to keep juveniles from escalating a fight.
“I don’t doubt the sincerity of the staff. I believe the staff really think they are going to be less safe if they can’t lock kids up in their rooms,” Soler said. “Some staff are just being resistant. But I think the great majority of staff are legitimately concerned about their ability to keep things under control at the facility and their own safety.”
For instance, LGBTQ kids are often put into isolation because staff argue that separating them from other juveniles is for their own protection. A disproportionate number of LGBT children are in the juvenile justice system, Soler pointed out. He added that through his observations, it would appear isolation is used more often on young people of color.
“They have different terms for it like protective custody — terms to make it seem more benign,” said Faruqee of Youth First Initiative said of LGBTQ kids. “But it is just as damaging to those young people to be in isolation.”
It’s also a convenient way for juvenile facilities to get around their legal responsibility to look after these groups to ensure they aren’t suffering maltreatment by other juveniles at the facility in the first place.
According to Faruqee, the use of isolation reflects a larger problem: the punitive nature of youth incarceration in general.
Although she supports efforts to reform the facilities, Faruqee pointed out that the facilities themselves were built on punishing juveniles and removing them from their communities and families. And even in situations where facilities stop using isolation, they may continue other problematic practices such as using mechanical restraints.
Faruqee referenced a facility in South Carolina where there were concerns about teens being held in isolation for more than six weeks at a time. The facility made some changes so that juveniles weren’t technically in isolation anymore — but didn’t go far enough.
“They were able to leave their rooms but whenever they left cells, they were in mechanical restraints, so full leg irons and handcuffs,” she said. “So these young people were in these handcuffs when they’re going to class, when they’re going to recreation, so they’re supposed to play basketball in these leg irons.”
A better way to treat teens
Soler argues that staff in juvenile facilities simply haven’t been trained to deescalate situations in a way that is appropriate for teenagers — and haven’t developed an understanding of why kids do what they do.
In order to fix this, Soler recommends that corrections officers should use training from Safe Crisis Management out of Pennsylvania, which is also recommended by the US Department of Justice.
“Eighty percent is about talking about what’s wrong,” Soler said. “Kids do a lot of things but they usually don’t just go off and get violent for no reason at all. There is some reason. It may not be a reason adults think is a good reason but it’s something kids think about and feel is important.”
For example, a teenager may think it’s important for him to defend his family’s reputation in the facility — so when someone criticizes a member of his family, he feels obligated to act.
A lot of misbehavior can be chalked up to teenagers being teenagers, however.
“Adolescent development teaches us that when a teenager doesn’t show respect to an authority figure, a teenager is being a regular teenager. That is what teenagers do,” Soler said. “It’s important for staff to understand that so if they talk to a child and a child talks back to them, they don’t take it personally.”
Experts like Soler recommend that if isolation is to be used at all, a maximum of four hours will allow kids to calm down and diffuse a potentially stressful situation. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, kids don’t have the energy to stay hyped up and ready for physical confrontation for that long. But beyond that time, isolation is only punitive.
Reforming a flawed system
Some states are making inroads to reforming the juvenile justice system, although progress is slow.
New York’s Close To Home program, for instance, allows juveniles to be placed in residential facilities and child care near their communities — instead of being sent to facilities hours away from their friends and families.
And after the Department of Justice investigated New York youth and adult prisons for the overuse of isolation, the state made significant progress reforming their prison system. New York took steps to prevent kids from ending up in the system to begin with by investing in community schools that provide more support services on campus, and is working on providing more therapeutic alternatives to incarceration. The D.C. prison and youth facility system has also made positive changes, although it has a long way to go toward improving facilities. The director of Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services, Clinton Lacey, is leading efforts to train adult ex-offenders to mentor juveniles and favors a less punitive, reform approach to running facilities.
But Faruqee says a lot of this depends on the right leadership, and conditions can backslide without a strong advocate for reform at the helm — particularly because there are larger systemic problems that need to be addressed, such as why kids are in the juvenile justice system to begin with.
In too many cases, status offenses — or things that would be legal for adults to do but are illegal for children, such as running away, violating curfew or skipping school — are part of the reason kids who would benefit from social services are funneled into the system. John, the West Virginia teenager is a good example of this. His mother wanted to help him, but instead he wound up in detention.
Although children can’t be placed in detention for status offenses, they can be if they violate court orders as a result of the offense. It’s a loophole that Congress is working to close trying to pass a reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974— but Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton (R), who once said the only problem with Guantanamo Bay Prison is that it has “too many beds,” refuses to budge on the issue.
Casey Quinlan is the education reporter at ThinkProgress.
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