By Marc Schindler
Executive Director of JPI
Originally Posted on Huffington Post's Blog
As Father’s Day approached, and I watched my kids excitedly make plans to celebrate, I couldn’t help but reflect on my juvenile justice reform work. As a former youth corrections administrator, I noticed their excitement is so different than the isolation we know is too often experienced by kids in facilities.
Based on my experience working with incarcerated youth, I know that many families do not get to enjoy Father’s Day. Across the country, too many families are torn apart by our criminal and juvenile justice systems, with loved ones locked away in facilities, often far away from their families. In particular, I think about kids in solitary confinement. Stuck in isolation, all alone in a cell, I know kids in solitary confinement are having a very different Father’s Day than my own children.
Solitary confinement is the involuntary placement of youth alone in a room or cell, for any reason other than a temporary response to behavior. Solitary is often used when there are insufficient staff or resources in facilities, particularly critical mental health services and appropriate training for all staff. This means that solitary confinement often prevents kids from getting the treatment and services they need. It can have long-lasting and devastating effects on youth, including trauma, psychosis, depression, anxiety, and increased risk of suicide and self-harm. In fact, over half of all suicides in juvenile facilities occur in solitary confinement.
That’s why my organization, the Justice Policy Institute, is working on a national campaign to end the use of solitary confinement for youth. Along with the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, and the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, we launchedStop Solitary for Kids, with a focus on ending solitary confinement of youth at the local, state and national level. Through this campaign, research experts, advocates, correctional administrators, parents of incarcerated youth, medical professionals, and elected officials have all come together in an effort to end solitary confinement of youth.
At the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign launch on April 19th, US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) spoke about the need to end solitary confinement, in order to do better for our kids. “We are engaging in a practice that human rights activists, and other countries, consider torture,” said Booker. He highlighted the growing consensus among activists, experts, and corrections administrators that solitary confinement is a harmful practice. The Senator also showed why this damaging practice is so harmful and counterintuitive in a juvenile justice system intended to rehabilitate youth, stating, “we’re being robbed of their beauty and their glory because we are punishing them and torturing them, harming them and traumatizing them.”
Our campaign builds off the momentum of the action of President Obama, who made history by calling for a ban on solitary confinement for youth in federal facilities. Obama wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that rightly called solitary confinement “an affront to our common humanity.” Though few youth are in federal custody, Obama’s Executive Action is influential in raising the bar across our country. The President is using the bully pulpit to spread the message that solitary confinement of youth is not only counterproductive, but inhumane, providing strong leadership to encourage the end of this practice.
Even in my own community, here in Washington, D.C., great strides are being made towards ending the solitary confinement of youth. DC Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie introduced the Comprehensive Youth Justice Act of 2016, proposing sweeping reforms to juvenile justice in the District. One of these reforms includes limiting the use of solitary confinement for all youth under the age of 18, whether held in a juvenile or adult facility, and requiring stringent reporting when it is used. These are the types of approaches we need in working with our young people. At the end of the day, it will make our kids healthier and our communities safer.
Altogether, these efforts show a growing consensus in America that we must stop solitary for kids. From national elected officials such as President Obama and Senator Cory Booker, to local decision makers like DC Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, reforms are being advanced to end solitary confinement. The campaign also includes important supporters such as corrections administrators from Ohio, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Indiana who are doing this in their own facilities and setting an example for facilities nationwide. Dozens of organizations across America, from the ACLU to the American Correctional Association, have also joined in support of the campaign. With such a wide variety of groups coming together, we know that true reform is possible.
This movement gives me hope that we can truly Stop Solitary for Kids. As a dad, I’m grateful for a day to celebrate my relationship with my kids, and I’m even more grateful that there will soon be a day where no kids will have to endure the harms of solitary confinement.