How Solitary Confinement Hurts Youth

officer4_Max.286.0“Punitive segregation” and “therapeutic modules” describe interventions correctional facility staff use on confined youth. These interventions might sound innocuous, but what do they really look like?

Recently the Center for Investigative Reporting examined the youth unit at New York’s Rikers Island. Facility management denied access to this unit, but the reporters nevertheless gained insight into the conditions of confinement by speaking with a former justice-involved youth. This young man described his four month experience in isolation. Youth spend twenty-three hours a day in isolation, exercising for one hour in a cage. Youth confined in these conditions often exhibit self-harming behavior, insomnia, and suicide. This form of behavior modification would be considered abuse if exerted by a parent on their child. Then why is it an excusable technique, even a resource or a tool, for correctional officers who are responsible for the youth under the care and custody of the state?

Staff frequently utilize these techniques in facilities that are overcrowded and mismanaged. Moreover, staff do not receive the proper resources or training to treat youth in their care. Instead they rely on isolation techniques to manage behavior. Yet, these youth correctional facilities, based on a congregate model, have long been deemed dangerous and ineffective. In California, the state youth correctional system, the Division of Juvenile Facilities, is under consent decree to improve these conditions. Many other state facilities are under similar orders and investigations.

Policymakers and advocates are increasingly concerned about the use of isolation. Legislation and government hearings have elevated concerns related to solitary confinement, particularly for young people. So, how can said conditions of confinement be improved?

One important mandate is to provide staff with the necessary guidance and support to minimize isolation as a last resort. However, this requires adequate staff training and resources, such as de-escalation techniques, to ensure they can serve high-needs youth. Further, facilities must have adequate activities and programming, which develops prosocial skills for youth.

kate mccrackenIt is important for the state and local communities to not throw away these young people, deeming them unsafe for the community. We cannot just lock these youth up and throw away the key. Correctional facilities, deemed the “parent” of these youth, must provide a safe environment for youth to be successful.

Kate McCracken
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice

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