California Bill Can End Solitary Confinement for Youth

June 4, 2015

By Angela Chung, Juvenile Justice Policy Associate

During the fall of 2013, Rosemary Summers, a 16-year-old from San Diego County, Calif., committed suicide at a juvenile hall called the Girls Rehabilitation Facility. She ended up there for failing to tell her probation officer that she had attended a Trayvon Martin rally, having been on probation for a few misdemeanors.

Rosemary, a trauma survivor with a history of depression and suicide attempts, was placed in solitary confinement for six weeks before her suicide. She repeatedly asked to see her counselor but was ignored. She hung herself with a bed sheet.

It is time for California to take leadership on ending the archaic, inhumane practice of solitary confinement, which the United Nations calls a form of torture.

On Tuesday, the California Senate successfully passed Senate Bill 124, which goes to the Assembly this summer. If enacted, this bill would be the most progressive piece of state legislation passed in the United States for youth subjected to solitary confinement. Similar versions of this bill have been introduced in the state for the last three years.

At this important moment in history when we are beginning to push back on the costly, ineffective and failed public policy experiment of mass incarceration, national momentum against solitary confinement has been gaining. Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma and West Virginia have all taken steps to curb solitary confinement for youth. These reforms have occurred through lawsuits or departmental policy changes, often after high-profile scandals.

SB 124, co-sponsored by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Youth Justice Coalition, the California Public Defender’s Association, and the Children’s Defense Fund-California, has already gathered a number of supporters, including a long list of community organizations, mental health service providers, researchers, unions and advocates.

It has also been strengthened by the recent groundbreaking settlement agreement in Contra Costa County, which would end the practice of solitary confinement as a punishment or disciplinary measure. Contra Costa County faced a federal class-action lawsuit by Public Counsel and Disability Rights Advocates for placing youth with disabilities in lockdown 23 hours a day, and depriving them of education as punishment.

The bill would limit this punitive and overused practice in juvenile facilities by only allowing it to be used as a last resort up to a maximum of four hours and by mandating that all facilities document when it is used. Solitary confinement has become a crutch in juvenile facilities, routinely used and abused for behavior modification, discipline and as a substitute for addressing a youth’s mental health issues.

A 2011 audit of youth prisons in California found that youth in solitary were often isolated in their cells for 23 hours a day without education, programming or adequate counseling and mental health treatment. For those with mental health conditions, isolating young people with pre-existing trauma histories exposes them to further dangers. Fifty percent of youth who commit suicide were found to have been in solitary confinement.

SB 124 would mean a great deal to the approximately 700 youth are incarcerated in California’s four Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) and about 7,600 youth in about 100 county juvenile facilities. Currently, state regulations on solitary confinement are minimal, and each county uses the practice as it sees fit with little oversight.

Jennifer Kim, director of programs for the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, Calif., notes the glaring moral contradiction in how we allow this practice to endure: “Current law allows juvenile facilities to engage in a dangerous practice that would be considered child abuse if parents were the ones isolating their kids.”

In California and across the nation, many juvenile facilities stray from the term “solitary confinement” and often mask its destructive nature by using words like “behavior treatment program,” “special housing units” or “separation.” The harmful impact of isolation is the same, regardless of the name used.

SB 124 would finally create a uniform definition of solitary confinement: “the placement of a person in a locked sleep room or cell alone with minimal or no contact with persons others than guards, correctional facility staff, and attorneys.” This definition and the bill’s data tracking requirements will ensure this practice is documented and regulated.

Additionally, SB 124 places considerable limitations on when solitary confinement can be used — specifically, that it can only be used when a youth poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility when all other less restrictive options have been exhausted. Under the bill, the maximum time a youth posing a safety concern could be held in solitary is four hours, and facilities must address the young person’s mental and physical health.

Some probation officers trained to use solitary confinement often ask, “Then what is the alternative?” Successful facilities and jurisdictions throughout the nation have for years curbed the use of harsh disciplinary practices like solitary confinement by employing developmentally appropriate alternatives. These methods have allowed youth to be engaged in programming, education and counseling while creating less damage to youth.

Places like New Beginnings in Washington, D.C., have used methods like separating the young person in humane conditions for cooling-down periods, utilizing verbal de-escalation tactics and effective crisis management techniques, and building the facility around a relationship-building trauma-informed approach to working with staff and youth.

We cannot give up on young people. While these changes will not come in time for Rosemary, they will ensure other vulnerable children in California who are caught up in the juvenile justice system are protected.

Angela M. Chung, Esq., is a juvenile justice policy associate with the Children’s Defense Fund-California.