Bill Aims to Limit Solitary Confinement Among Incarcerated Juveniles

One parent calls solitary confinement for teens "torture," while others agree the practice should only be used in the most extreme cases.

Sen. Leland Yee is urging California to limit the use of solitary confinement among juveniles in custody.

Yee, a child psychologist, introduced legislation Tuesday that defines and limits the use of solitary confinement at state and county juvenile correctional facilities, according to a statement from Yee's office.

Though the United Nations has called on all countries to prohibit solitary confinement in juvenile cases, the measure is commonly used in state and local juvenile facilities throughout California, Yee's office reported.

Six states – including Connecticut, Arizona, Maine, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Alaska – ban solitary confinement for “punitive reasons.”

“The use of solitary confinement of a child is wrong and should be used only in the most extreme situations,” said Yee.

“The studies are clear – holding juveniles in solitary increases recidivism rates, exacerbates existing mental illness, and makes youth more likely to attempt suicide. Solitary confinement does nothing to help rehabilitate and in fact makes those subjected to it more dangerous and likely to reoffend. SB 61 is necessary to limit this cruel practice and keep all Californians safe.”

Among the provisions of SB 61, the bill would:

  • Define solitary confinement as the involuntary placement in a room or cell in isolation from persons other than staff and attorneys.
  • Provide that solitary confinement shall only be used when a minor poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility, and all other less restrictive options have been exhausted.
  • Provide that a minor or ward shall only be held in solitary confinement for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk.
  • Provide additional restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for minors with suicidal or self-harming behavior.
  • Provide that clinical staff shall review minors or wards regularly to ensure that their physical and mental health is not endangered.
  • Empower existing county juvenile justice commissions to report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

Nationally, more than half of the youth who committed suicide while in a correctional facility were in solitary confinement at the time and 62 percent had a history of being placed in solitary confinement, according to Yee's office.

Research also shows that individuals who were forced into solitary confinement had much higher rates of recidivism as well as developing psychopathologies, Yee's office reported.

One woman said her godson, who was incarcerated at 15, had a number of personal challenges during his time in custody, including the death of his month.

“I remember when he was put into solitary confinement,” said LaNita Mitchell of her godson.

“I remember being so worried about him because the change in his demeanor was so obviously different that I was worried about him coming out of solitary and being able to function normally. Many young people go into these torture dungeons troubled, and come out damaged for life.”

Elizabeth Calvin, Senior Advocate for Human Rights Watch, believes solitary confinement doesn't do anything to help the incarcerated juvenile.

“Locking a teen in a room alone for 23 out of 24 hours a day is no way to help a young person get on the right track,” Calvin said in a statement.

“The juvenile justice system should use every minute it has with a youth to create opportunities for education, treatment, and personal growth.”

Another woman said solitary confinement was "torture" for her son.

“My son has made mistakes in his life,” said Maria Sanchez. “But he wasn't sentenced to be tortured. He wasn't sentenced to sit in a cold cell by himself all day with no help. I want him to gain the skills he needs to make the right choices. I want him to breathe some fresh air and to have enough food to eat. I want him to get help when he gets hurt. But how can any of this happen if he's sitting in a cell all day?”

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