By Duaa Eldeib
After years of sending youths to solitary confinement for days, weeks and even months at a time, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice has taken drastic steps to reduce the time young offenders spend in isolation.
The decision to move away from solitary confinement, or segregation, came as part of a consent decree in federal court between the department and the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
But top department officials also said the research was too powerful to ignore.
Solitary confinement can be psychologically damaging, particularly among young people, and it has been tied to depression, paranoia, psychosis and even suicide, according to a number of studies.
People with mental health diagnoses are especially vulnerable. More than 90 percent of youths in the department’s custody have at least one mental health diagnosis, according to the department’s most recent data. Nearly 30 percent have four or more diagnoses.
“Now that we know all of this research, we are obligated to change the way we do business,” department director Heidi Mueller said in an interview. “We can’t be in the business of causing more harm.”
As reported earlier this week, juvenile justice officials said they faced resistance from some guards at the Illinois Youth Center at Harrisburg, in southern Illinois, when the department decided to limit the use of solitary. Some guards believed the move left them without a key disciplinary tool and made their jobs more dangerous.