American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of religious, social services and children’s groups today will ask New Jersey to ban using solitary confinement as punishment for juveniles in state and county detention facilities. The state allows for juvenile offenders to be locked away in their rooms for up to five straight days as disciplinary punishment. Corrections officials in the United States have said it’s a needed tool. The ACLU and the groups say the practice goes against the mission of juvenile detention centers: to rehabilitate young people, all of whom will be released. "These are folks who are getting out, and we have an obligation to ensure both that they’re rehabilitated, and also that they’re not horribly damaged," said Alex Shalom, the policy counsel of the ACLU in New Jersey. "I think this is a real opportunity for New Jersey to take a leadership role."
The groups say they will file a petition with the Juvenile Justice Commission and the state Attorney General’s Office asking the state to change its rules on solitary confinement. A copy of the request, provided to The Star-Ledger, calls for banning corrections officers at state and county-run facilities from isolating juveniles in their cells as punishment.
The state runs four juvenile offender facilities that can hold more than 600 young people. Residents range in age from 12 to 23, though most are teens. About a dozen counties operate their own detention centers, which housed about 4,500 juveniles in 2011. The petition also calls for limiting the use of isolation as a means of keeping juveniles from hurting themselves or others. Such "room restrictions" can now be used for 24 hours but also may be extended for days and weeks if laid out in a special schedule designed for each resident. The groups want to limit those room restrictions to six hours initially, with possible extensions of up to 18 hours. The Juvenile Justice Commission signaled last week that it was willing to discuss the recommendations.
In a statement, the commission said officials will meet with the ACLU today "to discuss strategies for achieving our goal of ensuring the safety and welfare of the commission’s residents." The commission changed its rules on isolation of juveniles in 2005, when it first limited room restrictions to five days. It says the practice is used for discipline, medical reasons and to protect everyone in the facilities. "Implementation of this new rule received strong support from a broad range of advocacy groups, and remains in large measure the correctional standard across the nation," the statement said.
"That said, the JJC regularly monitors, reviews and adjusts its policies and practices, including its room restriction policy, to ensure that the commission is using the best methodology to promote the education, advancement and rehabilitation of the juveniles for which it is responsible."It’s unclear how often isolation is used at the state’s juvenile detention facilities. The Juvenile Justice Commission does not maintain any publicly available data on the practice at its facilities or at county-run detention centers, which are generally used to house juveniles awaiting trial. In a report last year on the solitary confinement of teenagers, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch found teens were being isolated in their cells at jails, prisons and detention facilities across the country.
The New York City Department of Corrections, the report said, indicated that more than 14 percent of adolescents it housed in fiscal 2012 were in solitary confinement at least once. In New Jersey, there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest solitary confinement is a commonly used tool, said Laura Cohen, the director of the Rutgers Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic, one of the groups asking for the rules change. She estimates 60 percent of the incarcerated juvenile offenders the clinic has represented spent time in isolation. Many are kept in solitary confinement for minor infractions, such as writing on the wall, she said. "We have seen everything from those kind of minor vandalism incidents or talking back to guards or teachers, all the way up to much more serious incidents in which people were injured," she said.
Most states permit the isolation of minors, and the American Correctional Association, which sets standards and accredits detention facilities in the United States, also allows for the practice as a tool to keep order and maintain safety. But the solitary confinement of juveniles has been banned entirely in five states, and three others have significantly limited its use, according to the petition being filed today.
Mental health experts warn that solitary confinement of anyone can lead to anxiety, depression and even psychosis. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the United Nations both oppose the solitary confinement of children. Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist who has evaluated patients kept in isolation, said most children who get locked up suffer from mental illness, and many with mental illness are sent into solitary confinement.
"What actually happens when you put people in these conditions is you’ve succeeded at making them as sick, as wild, as out of control, as incapable of functioning in broader society as you possibly can. And, of course, isn’t it obvious? You increase the chance of recidivism," Grassian said. "When they get out, you’ve succeeded at making them as dangerous to the community and as dangerous to themselves as you possibly can."