If Parents Did This, They'd Be Arrested: Teen Convicts Spend 450 Hours a Year in Solitary
Imagine being a frightened teenager locked in a space no larger than a closet for days, even weeks, at a time. No one speaks to you. You see nothing but bare walls and sleep on a bare mattress—or, in some cases, on a metal bed frame with no cushion. If you dare act out in frustration, the result? More days of solitary confinement as punishment for making noise.
That's daily life for a shocking number of mentally ill young teens serving time in American prisons. Last week, the federal government filed a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order against the Ohio Department of Youth Services for excessively isolating mentally ill juvenile offenders. This solitary confinement is causing these boys "real, irreparable harm," according to the lawsuit, and it is violating their due process rights.
“Seclusion has become the state’s modus operandi for handling boys with mental illness,” the lawsuit states. “In the last six months of 2013, the state imposed almost 60,000 hours of seclusion on boys at the facilities.... The state punishes the boys with seclusion (i.e., solitary confinement) for days on end, often also depriving them of education, exercise, programming and crucial mental-health care.”
The Ohio Attorney General's Office is pushing back: It filed a response last Friday requesting that the court deny the motion for a restraining order. The folks who run the state's Department of Youth Services "are in the best position to determine how seclusion is applied," the filing said. And "the overarching principle of deferring to prison officials regarding institutional safety should be liberally applied."
How many hours do boys in Ohio prisons spend in solitary confinement? In 2013 it was an average of 450 hours per youth, according to research of public records done by the Columbus Dispatch. That's up noticeably from a (still disturbing) average of about 362 per offender in 2012.
Imagine that: spending nearly 500 hours over the course of a year locked alone in a closet-size space. Of course, that's an average, which means some young inmates spent far more time in solitary, while others spent less or weren't isolated at all.
If parents did this to their children, we'd want them arrested, says Marsha Levick, deputy director of the Juvenile Law Center. "It's state-sanctioned child abuse," she says. "It's torture."
Yet prisons throughout the country—many of them for-profit businesses that benefit when the same teens are repeatedly incarcerated—are doing just that. So troubled kids leave these prisons suffering from fresh trauma that only exacerbates the mental illness, socioeconomic pressures, or family dynamics that may have led to their incarceration in the first place.
The alleged abuses in Ohio aren't the first to draw national headlines: In Pennsylvania, Mississippi, and Texas, abuses of minors and inhumane conditions at prisons have sparked outrage, lawsuits, and calls for legislation. Connecticut is one of the few states lauded for reforming its treatment of juvenile offenders.
In February, Sen. Dick Durbin held his second congressional hearing on the subject. "This Subcommittee has worked to address human-rights issues around the world, as we did with our hearing last month on the Syrian refugee crisis," Durbin said in his opening statement. "And we have an obligation to honestly consider our own human-rights record at home."
We don't know yet whether those hearings will lead to legislation barring the practice of isolating young teenagers in prison.
But Levick says attention is turning to this topic: Last fall the American Civil Liberties Union released a report calling for a ban on solitary confinement of children held in juvenile facilities. Human Rights Watch and other national organizations are tackling the topic, and many states have advocacy communities that are addressing the issue.
Thousands of kids locked alone in tiny cells right now are hoping we find answers and push for change.