On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors agreed to outlaw solitary confinement for young offenders doing time in the country’s largest juvenile justice system. That means 1,200 juveniles will be kept out of dirty and “deplorable” restrictive housing in 16 juvenile halls and camps, come September.
Criminal justice advocates and scientists have long considered solitary confinement a form of psychological torture that also causes damage to the brain. Supervisors Hilda Solis and Sheila Kuehl proposed the ban, citing atrocious conditions and research that says solitary reduces the likelihood of juveniles’ rehabilitation.
Young people who previously spent hours, days, and years in solitary described their experiences Tuesday, before the Board voted unanimously to eliminate the practice.
“We would be alone the majority of the time. No books to read. Nothing to write on. Just a mattress to sleep on,” 20-year-old Eddie Flores said of his experience. “I kept thinking, ‘What’s the point of changing if I’m just stuck in this room the whole time?’
Noting that he felt like a caged animal, another man in his early twenties testified, “Conditions were small concrete dirty room, the walls covered in dirt, dried up spit, the mattress was so ripped up it felt like I was laying down on a concrete or steel bars.”
Correctional staff generally use solitary confinement for punitive and safety reasons, but juveniles in the county have been thrown in isolation for less serious reasons, including food sharing and talking. Temporary isolation for very rare circumstances is still on the table, but juveniles will always be under the watch of a mental health professional in those instances.
“We can’t afford to treat these youngsters in this manner and expect that when they get out, they’re going to be OK,” Kuehl said.
Indeed, isolating kids means denying them rehabilitative services that change lives for the better. Solitary confinement exacerbates mental health problems and increases the risk of suicide. When people re-enter society after doing time in isolation, they are at a higher risk of recidivating.
The new ban in L.A. County is part of a growing movement to eliminate solitary confinement in correctional facilities nationwide. Most recently, the president issued an executive order banning the isolation of juveniles in all federal prisons.