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14 May 2014 Written by  Forward Times Staff

Attorney General Holder Criticizes Excessive Use Of Solitary Confinement for Juveniles with Mental Illness

WASHINGTON—Speaking in a video message posted on the Justice Department’s website, Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday called for an end to the excessive use of solitary confinement for youth that suffer from mental illness.  Attorney General Holder said the practices can have lasting, substantial effects on young people that could result in self-harm or, in some cases, even suicide. 

“Solitary confinement can be dangerous, and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released,” Attorney General Holder said.  “At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities.”

As a result of these unhealthy practices that violate the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sought a federal court ordertemporarily restraining the Ohio Department of Youth Services (DYS) from unlawfully secluding boys with mental health needs in its juvenile correctional facilities.

Last February, the Civil Rights Division also took the rare but necessary step of filing a statement of interest addressing the use of excessive reliance on solitary confinement for disabled youth in Contra Costa County, California.  Young people in these detention centers, including those with disabilities, were allegedly held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, often with no human interaction at all.

The complete text of the Attorney General’s video message is below:

“Across the country, 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.

“In a study released last year by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth in some type of isolation for more than four hours at a time.  We have received reports of young people who have been held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, often with no human interaction at all.  In some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows that were barely the width of their own hands.

“This is, to say the least, excessive.  And these episodes are all too common.

“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.  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. 

“Let me be clear, there may be times when it becomes necessary to remove a detained juvenile from others in order to protect staff, other inmates, or the juvenile himself from harm.  However, 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; isolated juveniles must be closely monitored, and every attempt must be made to continue educational and mental health programming while the youth is in isolation. 

“At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities.  And at the Department of Justice, we are committed to working with states to do this going forward.

“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 forget.  Our nationwide effort to end the unnecessary or excessive seclusion of youth with disabilities will not be completed solely with one settlement or court filing.  But as a department, we are dedicated – and as Attorney General, I am committed – to doing everything possible to ensure the effectiveness and integrity of our criminal and juvenile justice system.  In the days ahead, we will continue to make good on our commitment to the best practices of law enforcement and the highest ideals of our nation.”

The full video message is available at http://www.justice.gov/agwa.php.