The ACLU and Human Rights Watch recently released the report Growing Up Locked Down which looks at the practice of placing youth in solitary confinement (22-23 hours a day isolated from human contact in a small cell). The report outlines a myriad of concerns associated with this practice.
Holding youth in solitary confinement causes psychological, physical harm, and social and developmental harm. Isolated youth exhibit mental health issues such as increased risk of suicide, self harm, and exacerbation of existing mental health issues. Youth held in this form of confinement also rarely receive the kind of exercise necessary for a normal young person leading to physical harm. Finally, youth in solitary confinement often do not have significant contact with family members, do not have meaningful educational services, and rarely receive counseling and other basic services. This problem is particularly dramatic for youth with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues. The report recommends a number of reforms to address this litany of issues, but in general this practice simply should be used minimally or never.
In Texas, youth are placed in solitary confinement in the following settings:
- County (adult) jails
- State run juvenile facilities
- County run juvenile facilities
- Juveniles certified as adults may be placed in solitary while incarcerated in state prison facilities
In each of these settings, youth face the same risks of harm identified in the national report. In some cases, for example youth housed in county jails awaiting trial, the youth awaiting trial are placed in solitary confinement without a criminal conviction. In county jails, youth are placed in solitary confinement to protect the youth from the adult population in these facilities, but ironically this protective placement causes many other problems.
To address these issues in Texas, the ACLU of Texas is asking legislators to support two important reforms. First, the ACLU of Texas along with a number of partner organizations is working to end the use of solitary confinement as punishment. Solitary confinement has such a negative impact on youth, it should only be used in emergency or dangerous situations for short stints of time. It should not be a punishment for failing to clean one’s cell or having contraband reading material.
Second, we are asking legislators to create basic review for any youth placed in solitary confinement. Drawing on the example of West Virginia, we have recommended that legislators pass a bill requiring the following:
- Any facility that houses youth in solitary confinement must create an oversight committee or an Administrative Segregation Committee
- An Administrative Segregation Committee will include at least one medical professional (either a mental health or medical expert)
- The Committee will review initial placement of all youth placed in solitary confinement in the facility
- The Committee will continue to regularly review the placement of the youth for the duration of placement
- The Committee will create a Behavior Improvement Plan for the youth which provides a graduated return of privileges and a roadmap for the youth to leave solitary confinement and return to a less isolated setting
The negative impact of solitary confinement, the human toll of this suffering, and the practical impact on recidivism rates of mishandling our wayward youth all argue for reforms to the use of solitary confinement. Ultimately, almost all youthful offenders will return to our communities and it is in our collective interest to ensure that they receive the kind of treatment and services that allow for success. Tell your local newspaper we cannot afford the lost lives or the increased prison population that is caused by overusing solitary confinement.