We're One Step Closer to Ending Solitary Confinement for Youths

California's senate moves to limit the use of isolation at youth detention facilities.
California is rethinking how it treats incarcerated young people. (Photo: Andrejs Zemdega/Getty Images)
Jun 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Charles Davis is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, Salon, and Vice.

On Tuesday, the California State Senate passed a bill that would sharply limit the use of solitary confinement at youth detention facilities. The measure would still allow certain young offenders to be placed in isolation if authorities believe they pose an immediate risk to themselves or others, but it would ban the use of solitary as punishment and forbid its use altogether for inmates suffering from a mental illness. The bill now heads to the State Assembly.

So, Why Should You Care? The developments in California tap into one of the most troubling aspects of mass incarceration in the United States. Every day, an estimated 80,000 people are locked in a cell, alone, sometimes left for days, months, or even years—some simply because they are mentally ill. More than 61,000 people under the age of 18 are being held in youth detention facilities across the country. Many will experience some form of sensory deprivation.

Last month the Los Angeles Times reported that one in five juvenile facilities in California “appear to use some form of isolation.” At one detention center in Los Angeles County, the Times reported, 43 percent of the young people “spent more than 24 hours in solitary confinement.” A 2011 audit by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that in a three-month period, there were more than 200 cases of teenagers being placed in solitary confinement. In one case, a youth was locked in a cell for 239 of 240 hours—or about 10 consecutive days.

Rather than rehabilitate a youthful offender, this isolation has been found to cause serious and, in some cases, irreparable harm. In 2012, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry condemned the practice, saying it potentially leads to depression and anxiety. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than half of youth suicides behind bars occur when the youth is placed in isolation.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have banned the punitive use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities. California would become the first state on the West Coast to sharply limit the practice, joining most of New England as well as traditionally more conservative states such as Arkansas and Oklahoma. The tide appears to be in reformers' favor. Consider that in 2012, an effort to limit the use of solitary confinement at California's youth detention centers failed in the state Senate. In January, New York City moved to ban the use of solitary confinement for people 21 years old or younger.

Francisco Martinez was detained at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, California. There he recalls being put in a “small, dirty, concrete room” and being allowed to wear only socks, underwear, and a T-shirt. The air-conditioned room was “freezing torture” that triggered his asthma, he said, causing him to shake throughout the night. “Experiencing solitary confinement as a young teen was horrible—like an animal in a cage,” said Martinez, now an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, a Los Angeles–based advocacy group.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit in Oakland that lobbies for alternatives to mass incarceration, helped draft the bill limiting the use of solitary in California. “We initially began working on legislation to end solitary confinement of youth after hearing from family members of incarcerated youth that their kids had been placed in long-term isolation for 23 hours a day,” Jennifer Kim, the Baker Center’s director of programs, told TakePart. In the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote, the Baker Center encouraged supporters to bombard California’s senate with calls and emails. “We heard that their kids were not getting treatment and that there had been multiple suicide attempts. It became clear that existing regulations were inadequate.”