LA Times Op-Ed: Standards Needed for Solitary Confinement

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In California, solitary confinement as a juvenile could mean being put away for a couple of hours, a couple of days, or even weeks. That’s because, according to an editorial published by the Los Angeles Editorial Board this weekend, there is no standard definition of how confinement is practiced in detention centers.


Solitary confinement, sometimes called “temporary isolation” is a widely used technique to protect violent or disruptive inmates from each other and from staff. But without a uniform best practice for the state, the article argues, the isolation can end up being anything but temporary. “Some officials say isolation is part of their treatment programs, but it can look an awful lot like retaliation, punishment or professional incompetence. The same is true in state youth facilities, where so-called temporary detention and even treatment programs can in effect be 23-hour-a-day lockdowns.”


And beyond the inconsistencies in the practice, the editorial also claims that by itself, solitary confinement is unhealthy for teens. “And if the juvenile is already mentally disturbed,” the author writes, “solitary confinement can further degrade his or her mental state. It can make treatment more difficult and, some studies suggest, suicide more likely.”


Last year, Youth Radio looked at a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch that explored the effects of solitary confinement on the developing teenage body. The report pointed to both mental and physical side effects like anxiety, insomnia, and physical issues associated with not getting enough exercise or food.


The same year the report was published, a California state bill that would have required mental evaluation for young inmates for every four hours held in confinement failed to pass.


Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), sponsored that bill, and this year he hopes to move a similar bill, SB 61, that would require officials, “at the very least have to certify that mental health evaluations were part of the decision-making process for each juvenile, and [that detention officials] should document all instances of solitary lockdown, under consistent standards and definitions.”


As in the past, these kinds of bills face a major hurdle, California’s tight budget. Some funding is available now and the author says that the Senate will have to think long and hard about whether the cost of introducing these practices outweighs the benefit of what they believe could be a safer, healthier justice system.


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