Why solitary confinement is not the right answer for juvenile offenders

Solitary confinement is not a commensurate intervention to any demonstrated youth crisis behavior

By DeShane Reed, C1 Contributor 

In January 2009, I became the superintendent of the Marion Superior Courts Juvenile Detention Center in Indiana. My background was in mental health, with years of experience working with young people.

At the time, the Marion County facility was under a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice because of poor conditions of confinement – conditions that were not that different from those reported at Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls. Our task – like the task for those in Wisconsin – was to create a safe environment for youth and staff.  Our experiences show that these changes can happen, and can happen safely, with the right leadership.

In this May 20, 2010, file photo some youths are seen playing basketball through bars on a window at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Ethan Allen School in Wales, Wis.
In this May 20, 2010, file photo some youths are seen playing basketball through bars on a window at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Ethan Allen School in Wales, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

There has been a lot of press recently about violence at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. Many of the reports suggest that if staff could use more solitary confinement, the facility would be safer. Solitary confinement is not the answer; instead, adequate staffing and thoughtful programming can solve the problem. 

Solitary confinement does not provide necessary coping skills

In 2012, a U.S. Attorney General-appointed National Task Force on Children exposed to Violence concluded, “Nowhere is the impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.”

Solitary confinement deprives youth of needed human contact. It deprives them of the necessary cognitive stimulation that the human brain requires to develop on pace with physical development. It leaves youth coping with their crises by themselves. If a youth was originally unable to bring their own crisis behavior under control, how would they gain better coping skills by being alone in a room with no new intelligent stimulation to help them make better choices the next time a similar event occurs?  

Simply put, solitary confinement is not a commensurate intervention to any demonstrated youth crisis behavior because solitary confinement is punitive and has no rehabilitative function.

Youth returning back into general population from being in solitary have demonstrated decreases in emotional stability, cognitive development and social interactions, as well as increases in impulsivity, anger outbursts and depression.

Youth who return from extended periods of solitary confinement have also been shown to have more program-violating incidents than prior to entering solitary confinement. You can surmise that solitary confinement actually makes a facility less safe.

Solitary confinement is about convenience, not care

The use of solitary confinement is largely about convenience and staff attitudes regarding rehabilitating youth.

Working in juvenile justice institutions, specifically in crisis situations, will unmask staff’s innermost attitudes about youth rehabilitation.

I have observed seemingly good staff progressively seduced away from youth rehabilitation toward youth debilitation, by way of using the institution’s low-hanging intervention, namely solitary confinement.

Too often, veteran staff train newly-hired personnel to use solitary confinement and how to justify it, instead of providing training in the programming and interventions that can make a facility safe.

How to find the right intervention

Finding a proportionate response to crisis is a delicate balance. The appropriate intervention response should discourage the behavior while offering healthy alternatives.

If youth are not taught and given opportunity to practice new coping skills to respond to what they identify as crisis events, then the youth will exercise the only coping skills they possess. As the old adage states, “If your only tool is a hammer, then all you know is nails.” We must help youth increase their coping tools!

If Wisconsin wants to safely end its reliance on solitary confinement, it needs to put in place other tools to help youth learn problem-solving skills. Some examples of other responses to youth crisis behaviors include:

  • Unearned points/privileges;
  • Completion of written assignments related to the behavior;
  • Time-limited activity suspensions;
  • Removal from a group to a less stimulating group;
  • Early shower or bedtime;
  • Timeout (15 minutes or less);
  • Mediation with staff or peers;
  • Individualized success plans;
  • Eating specific meals with a different group;
  • A mentor appointed to the youth;
  • A “behavioral think sheet” presented to peers;
  • Incentivizing of targeted behaviors.

These are tried and true interventions that have worked in Indiana and other jurisdictions around the country, and could also work in Wisconsin.

When we put these interventions in place in Indiana, the facility became safer, healthier and better for youth and staff, even though we weren’t relying on solitary confinement.

Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher made the right call when he said that the department can implement the injunction in a safe and secure manner for staff and youth alike. Now the facility needs to put in place the training, staffing and programming to ensure that the facility fulfills the juvenile justice system’s goal of rehabilitation, rather than placing youth alone in dreary, lonely and isolated spaces for extended periods of time.

About the author
DeShane Reed is a senior juvenile justice consultant and juvenile justice institution management expert and author of "The Art of Holistic Security," an operations manual for juvenile justice facilities. Reed possess more than 22 years of experience working with diverse populations in the fields of juvenile justice and mental health treatment, and is a member of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Applied Leadership Network,” a consortium of selected experts from across the U.S. charged with advancing juvenile justice reform throughout various U.S. jurisdictions.

In 2009, Reed was tapped to lead Indiana’s largest juvenile detention center out of being under a United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) consent decree, which included amending 33 C.R.I.P.A, Protection from Harm, Safety, and Education standard violations. Under Reed’s leadership, the USDOJ consent decree case was dismissed in 2011. In October 2014, Reed assumed leadership of Arkansas’ largest residential treatment facility for justice-involved youth. 

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