Seeking to end solitary confinement of children in New Jersey juvenile detention centers, civil rights organizations on Monday filed a petition with the state proposing new limits on what they say is a psychologically damaging - and poorly regulated - form of discipline.
Led by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, nine groups are pushing for changes to the rules governing juvenile detention centers, including eliminating the state's authority to hold children for up to five days in solitary confinement as punishment or pending a disciplinary hearing.
The petition cites an "emerging body of social scientific literature" about the harmful effects of solitary confinement - particularly on young people - and a movement nationwide to eliminate or restrict the practice.In New Jersey, state officials have released no data on the numbers of children being held in isolation in detention centers.
But the groups behind the petition say the practice is common, often administered arbitrarily - and sometimes with devastating consequences.One boy, in trouble for stealing a bicycle, hung himself some years ago after he was placed in an isolation cell, said Bonnie Kerness of the American Friends Service Committee, one of the groups that signed the petition.
Gathering testimony from dozens of imprisoned children "over many years," Kerness said, stories emerged of rat-infested cells, inhumane treatment from guards, and temperatures so cold that one boy, left in a room without clothes, was screaming all night.
"This kind of treatment belies a society that considers itself a model of human rights," Kerness said at a news conference Monday outside the the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton.
"Children learn what they live. If they live with torture, they learn violence."
New Jersey has three secure, state-run juvenile facilities that house up to 614 children or young adults, committed to the facilities by the juvenile justice system, ranging in age from 12 to 23, according to the Juvenile Justice Commission.
The state also has 11 county-run detention centers, which house children who are facing charges but awaiting resolution of their cases.
The Juvenile Justice Commission uses room restriction for discipline, as well as medical reasons, a child's protection or the protection of others, said Sharon Lauchaire, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Justice Commission. She did not comment on how many children are under such restrictions in state facilities, saying that data is not part of official reports.
The commission regularly reviews its policies, Lauchaine said. In 2005, it limited its use of room restrictions to five days - a change Lauchaine said "received strong support from a broad range of advocacy groups, and remains in large measure the correctional standard across the nation."
Five days in isolation is still too long, said Craig Levine, senior counsel and policy director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
He likened the practice to a parent locking a misbehaving child in a bedroom for the same period of time. "When you opened the door at the end of the week, would your child be better or worse?" Levine said.
Some children are also isolated for longer than five days, opponents say.
A federal lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Juvenile Law Center alleges New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission officials violated the civil rights of two boys at state detention facilities - one of
whom was held in isolation for seven months, said Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the Philadelphia law center.
"The problem with the regulatory system in New Jersey is it's open ended," without clear time limits, Levick said. Isolation "is extensive throughout the system, because the regulations allow for it."
In addition to seeking monetary damages for the boys - one of whom has since been killed in Philadelphia, Levick said - the lawsuit aims to change the state's solitary confinement practices. The case is scheduled for trial this year, Levick said.
The ACLU filed its petition in hopes of forcing the state to review its policies sooner, said Alexander Shalom, policy counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey.
The attorney general's office has 60 days to respond to the petition. Representatives of the office and Juvenile Justice Commission met with the ACLU Monday.
"I think they're really open to seeing what models can work," Shalom said.
Children in juvenile facilities will rejoin society, he said, and "we have to ask ourselves who we want to emerge: someone capable of living a productive life . . . or someone who has been psychologically damaged by solitary confinement."
For Shaheed Brown, who was committed to a juvenile detention center at age 12 and spent years in the system, isolation was "a really terrifying experience."
Brown, 29, of Trenton, recalls becoming depressed and angry. When he left the juvenile system, it wasn't long before he was sent to prison as an adult - this time, for shooting crimes, he said. He was released from prison three years ago.
"I brought that anger to the streets," said Brown, who has been interviewed by Kerness about his experience. "What I did, I deserved to be locked up."