Op-ed: Stop the Solitary Confinement of Youth
Stop Solitary Confinement of Youth
May 3, 2018
Illinois became a pioneer in juvenile justice reform when it established the first juvenile court in the U.S. in 1899 that served as a model for the rest of the country. Over a century ago, these civic trailblazers recognized the unique needs of children and youth, and the rehabilitative role our juvenile justice system can play in keeping young people on the path to success. Now we have the scientific research showing that young people continue to undergo periods of significant development into their 20s. Youth entering the juvenile justice system are more likely to have been exposed to adverse childhood experiences; adolescence offers a period of time to address underlying issues such as trauma, mental and behavioral health needs and prepare young people for bright futures. It is incumbent on us to provide safe and enriching rehabilitative environments for youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system because these experiences will have lasting impacts.
A recent investigative story by the Chicago Reporter reminds us that despite the progress our state has made, we have taken a detour down a dangerous path. The article highlighted a disturbing, growing trend at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center (JTDC) where youth are being placed in solitary confinement at a higher rate over the past two years despite the overall population decline within the JTDC. Youth detained at the JTDC have been confined to their cells more than 55,000 times over the past two-and-a-half years. In Illinois, it is legal to place youth in solitary confinement, but not for more than 36 hours at a time. According to the Chicago Reporter, JTDC has confined youth for longer than 36 hours in every month since May 2015. In cases where violations of that time limit occur, we lack an enforcement mechanism to properly address those violations.
Solitary confinement is extremely emotionally, mentally and psychologically damaging for youth, and we know that the practice does not yield positive outcomes. The American Psychological Association called for the end of the use of solitary confinement for youth in federal custody in 2017 citing the increased risk of self-mutilation, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, paranoia and aggression.
In 2014, the Annie E. Casey Foundation recommended the elimination of solitary confinement for “discipline, punishment, administrative convenience, retaliation, staffing shortages, or reasons other than as temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate harm to a youth or others.” In recent years, 13 states have enacted policies limiting or prohibiting the use of solitary confinement for youth in detention facilities. At the JTDC, however, youth are in some cases placed in solitary confinement for very minor infractions such as damaging their identification wristbands. The director of the JTDC sees utilization of this practice as a way to maintain order and indicates no plans to curb this practice.
As a coalition representing 82 children and youth service providers and advocates whose goal is to ensure that children, youth and families are safe, healthy and on the path to maximizing their potential, Illinois Collaboration on Youth (ICOY) demands an end to the harmful and inhumane practice of keeping youth in solitary confinement. We are working with our partners to promote policies that require juvenile justice and correctional facilities across the state to employ proven alternatives to help manage their facilities, adequately respond to disciplinary and protective issues and ensure the safety of all youth in their custody. Juvenile justice administrators can more effectively enforce rules through adequate staffing, appropriate training and increased access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment services. Illinois can be a leader in juvenile justice reform again. Replacing this cruel practice with evidence-based alternatives is a step in the right direction.