Support SB 124 to end solitary confinement for youth

Open letter from Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law President and Executive Director Peter Schey to Assembly Appropriations Committee Chair Jimmy Gomez sent Aug. 19, 2015 (Read the letter in pdf HERE and the text of SB 124 HERE)

Dear Assemblyman Gomez:

As you know, the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law has a long history of successful major litigation and advocacy on behalf of immigrants and other vulnerable communities, including juveniles and adults in solitary confinement. You may recall that we served as lead counsel in the case of LULAC v. Pete Wilson that blocked implementation of California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187. We recently won a widely publicized nationwide class action ruling in the case of Flores v. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson regarding the detention of immigrant mothers and their children.

A youngster endures the torture of solitary confinement. – Photo: Richard Ross, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange
A youngster endures the torture of solitary confinement. – Photo: Richard Ross, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

We understand that SB 124 may go into suspense today for a week but urge you at the end of that period to provide the leadership needed to then release SB 124 from suspense.

Current statutory law allows minors who are detained in juvenile halls for non-criminal offense – including, for example, disobedience, truancy or curfew violations – to be detained in the same facilities as other minors detained for violating laws defined as crimes or in other secure adult detention facilities if they do not come or remain in contact with each other. The Lanterman-Petris-Short Act permits the detention and evaluation for a period of 72 hours of persons, including minors, who are deemed dangerous to themselves or others, or gravely disabled.

As you know, SB 124 will prohibit persons confined in juvenile facilities who are a danger to themselves or others as a result of a mental disorder – or who are gravely disabled – from being placed in solitary confinement and would require that such juveniles be evaluated at a designated facility. SB 124 will also prohibit a juvenile, other than one described above, who is detained in any secure juvenile facility from being subject to solitary confinement unless set conditions are satisfied, including that the person poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to the security of the facility, poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others that is not the result of a mental disorder, or poses a risk of harm to himself or herself that is not a result of a mental disorder.

The bill would permit, if those conditions are satisfied, the person to be held in solitary confinement only in accordance with certain guidelines, including that the person be held in solitary confinement only for the minimum time required to address the risk.

The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law strongly supports the enactment of SB 124. We have worked with hundreds of detainees in solitary confinement and are aware that California uses solitary confinement far more widely than most other states, and with far less due process protections or understanding of the short- and long-term psychological and physical harms caused by solitary confinement.

Numerous studies confirm that the symptoms of juveniles held in solitary confinement include perceptual distortions and loss of perceptual contacts, hallucinations, paranoid ideation, fantasies of revenge, emergence of primitive aggressive fantasies, and recurrent physical conditions including rapid heartbeat, perspiration, shortness of breath, panic, trembling, fear of imminent death and self-mutilation.

The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law strongly supports the enactment of SB 124. We have worked with hundreds of detainees in solitary confinement and are aware that California uses solitary confinement far more widely than most other states, and with far less due process protections or understanding of the short- and long-term psychological and physical harms caused by solitary confinement.

It should be noted that juveniles of color – primarily Latino and Black minors – are severely disproportionately subject to solitary confinement practices in California.

In our expert opinion, the treatment of juveniles in solitary confinement in California amounts to degrading treatment illegal under well-established international norms and obligations of the United States and the state of California including, inter alia, the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (“CAT”) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”). California practices are also vulnerable to legal challenge as they fail to provide juveniles with adequate due process protections before they are placed in solitary confinement for extended periods of time.

California should display national leadership in the area of juvenile justice, not be among the states with the most backward, inhumane and primitive policies. For the reasons expressed above, we respectfully urge you to take whatever leadership steps are possible to protect the fundamental rights of this highly vulnerable population of juveniles and offer your strong support for SB 124.

As always, we are grateful for your leadership and consideration. Please feel free to contact me if we may be of any assistance in this matter.

Peter Schey can be reached at the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, 256 South Occidental Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90057, 213-388-8693, www.centerforhumanrights.org.

California bill can end solitary confinement for youth

by Angela M. Chung, Esq., Juvenile Justice Information Exchange

During the fall of 2013, Rosemary Summers, a 16-year-old from San Diego County, committed suicide at a juvenile hall called the Girls Rehabilitation Facility. She ended up there for failing to tell her probation officer that she had attended a Trayvon Martin rally, having been on probation for a few misdemeanors.

Rosemary, a trauma survivor with a history of depression and suicide attempts, was placed in solitary confinement for six weeks before her suicide. She repeatedly asked to see her counselor but was ignored. She hanged herself with a bed sheet.

It is time for California to take leadership on ending the archaic, inhumane practice of solitary confinement, which the United Nations calls a form of torture. If enacted, Senate Bill 124 would be the most progressive piece of state legislation passed in the United States for youth subjected to solitary confinement. Similar versions of this bill have been introduced in the state for the last three years.

At this important moment in history when we are beginning to push back on the costly, ineffective and failed public policy experiment of mass incarceration, national momentum against solitary confinement has been gaining. Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma and West Virginia have all taken steps to curb solitary confinement for youth. These reforms have occurred through lawsuits or departmental policy changes, often after high-profile scandals.

It is time for California to take leadership on ending the archaic, inhumane practice of solitary confinement, which the United Nations calls a form of torture.

SB 124, co-sponsored by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Youth Justice Coalition, the California Public Defender’s Association and the Children’s Defense Fund-California, has gathered a long list of supportive community organizations, mental health service providers, researchers, unions and advocates.

It has also been strengthened by the recent groundbreaking settlement agreement in Contra Costa County, which would end the practice of solitary confinement as a punishment or disciplinary measure. Contra Costa County faced a federal class action lawsuit by Public Counsel and Disability Rights Advocates for placing youth with disabilities in lockdown 23 hours a day and depriving them of education as punishment.

The bill would limit this punitive and overused practice in juvenile facilities by allowing it to be used only as a last resort up to a maximum of four hours and by mandating that all facilities document when it is used. Solitary confinement has become a crutch in juvenile facilities, routinely used and abused for behavior modification, discipline and as a substitute for addressing a youth’s mental health issues.

A 2011 audit of youth prisons in California found that youth in solitary were often isolated in their cells for 23 hours a day without education, programming or adequate counseling and mental health treatment. For those with mental health conditions, isolating young people with pre-existing trauma histories exposes them to further dangers. Fifty percent of youth who commit suicide were found to have been in solitary confinement.

SB 124 would limit this punitive and overused practice in juvenile facilities by allowing it to be used only as a last resort up to a maximum of four hours and by mandating that all facilities document when it is used.

SB 124 would mean a great deal to the approximately 700 youth incarcerated in California’s four Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) and about 7,600 youth in about 100 county juvenile facilities. Currently, state regulations on solitary confinement are minimal, and each county uses the practice as it sees fit with little oversight.

Jennifer Kim, director of programs for the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, Calif., notes the glaring moral contradiction in how we allow this practice to endure: “Current law allows juvenile facilities to engage in a dangerous practice that would be considered child abuse if parents were the ones isolating their kids.”

In California and across the nation, many juvenile facilities stray from the term “solitary confinement” and often mask its destructive nature by using words like “behavior treatment program,” “special housing units” or “separation.” The harmful impact of isolation is the same, regardless of the name used.

Jennifer Kim, director of programs for the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, Calif., notes the glaring moral contradiction in how we allow this practice to endure: “Current law allows juvenile facilities to engage in a dangerous practice that would be considered child abuse if parents were the ones isolating their kids.”

SB 124 would finally create a uniform definition of solitary confinement: “the placement of a person in a locked sleep room or cell alone with minimal or no contact with persons other than guards, correctional facility staff, and attorneys.” This definition and the bill’s data tracking requirements will ensure this practice is documented and regulated.

Additionally, SB 124 places considerable limitations on when solitary confinement can be used – specifically, that it can be used only when a youth poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility when all other less restrictive options have been exhausted. Under the bill, the maximum time a youth posing a safety concern could be held in solitary is four hours, and facilities must address the young person’s mental and physical health.

Some probation officers trained to use solitary confinement often ask, “Then what is the alternative?” Successful facilities and jurisdictions throughout the nation have for years curbed the use of harsh disciplinary practices like solitary confinement by employing developmentally appropriate alternatives. These methods have allowed youth to be engaged in programming, education and counseling while creating less damage to youth.

Places like New Beginnings in Washington, D.C., have used methods like separating the young person in humane conditions for cooling-down periods, utilizing verbal de-escalation tactics and effective crisis management techniques, and building the facility around a relationship-building trauma-informed approach to working with staff and youth.

We cannot give up on young people. While these changes will not come in time for Rosemary, they will ensure other vulnerable children in California who are caught up in the juvenile justice system are protected.

We cannot give up on young people. While these changes will not come in time for Rosemary, they will ensure other vulnerable children in California who are caught up in the juvenile justice system are protected.

Angela M. Chung, Esq., can be reached at Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. This story first appeared in the LA Progressive.