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Proposal Would Limit Solitary Confinement in California Juvenile Detention Centers

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April 23, 2015

Solitary confinement is an extremely harmful practice, widely condemned as torture, but extensively used in California’s juvenile justice systems.  Its overuse – just as in adult correctional situations – can do more harm than good.

“As shown by studies carried out by various human rights organizations,” said Pope Francis in an address to the International Association of Penal Law last year, “ the lack of sensory stimuli, the total impossibility of communication and the lack of contact with other human beings induce mental and physical suffering such as paranoia, anxiety, depression, weight loss, and significantly increase the suicidal tendency”

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

“The potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis. Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions.  Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”

SB 124 (Leno, D-San Francisco) – one of our Catholic Advocacy Day bills – would address the damaging impact of solitary confinement by limiting when and for how long juveniles could be confined in this way.  Should it pass, SB 124 would provide a model for juvenile justice systems nationwide.

A variety of negative effects stem from solitary confinement, but juveniles are more likely to grow in adulthood socially stunted and awkward. 

Young people report that the experience remains with them for a long time.  Nothing is done during incarceration to help them develop coping skills or identify the root causes of their mental health issues.  When they are released, there are no tools to address their overwhelming social, physical, psychological and spiritual needs.

In 2000, more 5,000 juveniles were committed to solitary confinement in California; today that number is over 700.  That’s an accomplishment in itself but while the overall effected population is smaller, the culture remains the same – changes and reforms to the practice have been marginal and minimal.

Alternatives to solitary confinement exist says the Academy “including appropriate behavioral plans and other interventions.”

The bill provides for such alternatives and the use of confinement in certain circumstances – but only for a proscribed time period.

Those who oppose the bill, mostly from the correctional community, acknowledge there may have been problems in the past but that changes to procedures introduced by the Department of the Youth Authority and the Division of Juvenile Facilities have already corrected the abuses.

Moral arguments, however, often get lost in the debate over rules and regulations.  Politics will address the institutional issues but inadvertently, ignore the root causes of an issue. 

The faith community brings forth the moral voice and provides an alternate approach for issues, especially in the form of restorative justice models.  Legislators appreciate and look to faith leaders as effective and transparent messengers.

As expressed in the California Catholic Conference backgrounder on the bill:

The Old Testament provides us with a rich tradition that demonstrates both God’s justice and mercy.  Isolation may be necessary in some rare cases for the protection of minors; but while cutting off human and particularly family contact can make incarceration easier for those in charge, it can make reintegration harder for those in custody. Solidarity calls us to insist on responsibility and seek alternatives that do not simply punish, but rehabilitate, heal and restore.  Causes for optimism stem from an increase in movement towards reform nationwide.  New York, for instance, is one of the first states to end solitary confinements for juveniles.

SB 124 is a step toward addressing abuses in the practice of juvenile solitary confinement.  Proponents would ultimately like to eliminate its practice completely for young people.