Guest Commentary: Strict Limits on Solitary for Juveniles
Last week, President Obama announced a series of reforms regarding the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, including restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system. We had already been working on legislation that will be introduced shortly to do the same in our state prisons and juvenile corrections facilities in Colorado.
Studies have shown a connection between isolating prisoners and higher rates of recidivism, and the evidence is overwhelming that solitary confinement is harmful in youth rehabilitation. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry opposes the use of solitary confinement in juvenile correctional facilities, citing numerous studies showing that it worsens pre-existing conditions. The National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, convened by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, released a report critical of juvenile solitary confinement and the “devastating effects” isolation can have on youth with past histories of abuse or trauma.
Recent court rulings have established that arbitrary and extended use of solitary confinement as punishment for juveniles violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
According to a 2015 Annie E. Casey Foundation report, Colorado received the worst ranking for systemic or recurring maltreatment of youth in juvenile corrections facilities.
The Colorado Division of Youth Corrections adopted a policy prohibiting the use of solitary confinement for punitive purposes in July 2014. “Seclusion,” as the DYC calls it, was to be used for emergency purposes only. But in October 2015, The Gazette of Colorado Springs published an article documenting the continued use of solitary confinement and other harsh, punitive behavioral control methods in juvenile detention centers. One juvenile offender was committed to solitary confinement for 49 hours, another for 34 hours, and still other youth offenders were locked away with no outside contact for 23 hours at a time. The DYC has since rewritten its policy to allow solitary confinement for emergency purposes only and only for four hours at a time.
While the DYC is moving in the right direction, it is time to write limited and careful use of juvenile solitary confinement into statute. We are sponsoring legislation to strictly limit the use of solitary confinement and to require transparency from the DYC concerning its use. Solitary confinement of a juvenile will only be appropriate in emergency situations to diffuse a dangerously volatile or violent situation and only for four hours at a time. The bill provides that during seclusion the youth will meet with a mental health professional to begin to de-escalate the emergency situation. Parents will be notified that their child has been committed to solitary confinement. Corrections staff will receive training in adolescent behavior, de-escalation techniques, and mental health. The DYC will report monthly on the use of solitary confinement in its facilities.
When youth run afoul of the law, there must be consequences. We should incarcerate the state’s most dangerous and violent youth offenders. However, young people can be responsive to intervention, counseling, education and guidance. Harsh and inhumane treatment is unlikely to change behavior of already angry and violent teens.
Thirteen other states have taken action since 2011 to limit the use of solitary confinement for youth. It is time for Colorado to stop inflicting the devastating psychological consequences of solitary confinement on our youth.
State Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, represents House District 8. State Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, represents House District 18.