Holder Speaks Out Against Solitary Confinement of Mentally Ill Youths

Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

By Gary Gately

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. condemned “excessive” use of solitary confinement of children with mental illness in juvenile facilities.

“At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities,” including mental illness, Holder said in a video posted on the Justice Department website.

“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities, who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects, including self-harm and even suicide,” the attorney general said. “In fact, one national study found that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent of victims had a history of solitary confinement.”

As JJIE reported in March, thousands of juveniles endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.

Holder noted that in some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows barely the width of their hands.

“This is, to say the least, excessive, and these episodes are all too common,” he said.

“Across the country,” Holder said, “far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular, youth with disabilities. But solitary confinement can be dangerous and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.”

He pointed to a study released last year by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) showing 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth up in some form of isolation for more than four hours at a time.

Holder said it may sometimes be necessary to separate a youth from others to protect staff, other inmates or the juvenile from harm.

“However,” he added, “this action should be taken only in a limited way where there is a valid reason to do so – and for a limited amount of time.”

Holder also said juveniles placed in isolation must be closely monitored and detention facilities must make “every attempt” to continue educational and mental health programming while a youth is in isolation.

“We must ensure in all circumstances, and particularly when it comes to our young people, that incarceration is used to rehabilitate and not merely to warehouse and to forget,” Holder said.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, praised Holder’s statement.

“The ACLU commends Attorney General Holder for speaking out against the harmful practice of placing vulnerable youth in solitary confinement,” Fettig said in an e-mail to JJIE.  “This action clearly signals that such practices should not be tolerated in our society and that jurisdictions across the country must stop placing children in solitary confinement.

“But,” Fettig added, “the attorney general needs to go further. He must speak out against using the practice on any child – not just children with disabilities.  Thousands of kids in this country are subject to solitary confinement every year, and this practice harms each and every one of them.”

The Justice Department has taken action in recent months in response to what it said was use of solitary confinement of youths with disabilities.

In March, the department said it asked a federal court to prevent the Ohio Department of Youth Services from unlawfully placing boys with mental health disorders in solitary confinement at the state’s juvenile detention facilities. The department alleged in a motion that DYS violated the constitutional rights of boys placed in solitary at all four of the state’s juvenile detention facilities.

In February, the department’s Civil Rights Division filed a statement of interest in response to what it called excessive reliance on solitary confinement of disabled youths in Contra Costa County, Calif. The statement alleged youths were held in solitary confinement up to 22 hours a day, often with no human interaction whatsoever.

And a task force commissioned by Holder, the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, concluded in its final report in December 2012: “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The task force recommended the practice be forbidden. Robert L. Listenbee Jr., now the OJJDP  administrator, co-chaired the task force.

In his role as OJJDP administrator, Listenbee stated in a July 5, 2013, letter to an American Civil Liberties Union official that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” which is banned under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.