The Department of Justice on Monday announced it had reached an agreement with Ohio under which the state will dramatically reduce and eventually eliminate the use of solitary confinement for juveniles — with an emphasis on those with mental illness — in a move some advocates said would have "enormously important implications" for the rest of the country.
Under the deal, Ohio’s Department of Youth Services, which deals with offenders ages 10 to 21, will significantly reduce the duration of solitary confinement and the scenarios in which the punishment would be allowed, according to the DOJ. The state will also increase therapeutic, educational and recreational services for juveniles held in seclusion.
"Overreliance on solitary confinement for young people, particularly those with disabilities, is unsafe and counterproductive," Attorney General Eric Holder said. "The Justice Department will continue to evaluate the use of solitary confinement so that it does not become a new normal for incarcerated juveniles."
In essence, the agreement means Ohio would need to provide mental health treatment to young people in its facilities and not use solitary confinement, which involves placing an incarcerated person by themselves with no human contact other than prison staff — usually used as form of discipline, punishment or protection — as a replacement for treatment.
Some of the juveniles in the Ohio detention centers were allegedly held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours per day, often with no human interaction at all, according to the DOJ.
“This settlement with Ohio has enormously important implications because it is a warning sign, it’s a signal to the rest of the country from the Department of Justice that [states] need to get their act together and they need to change their practices," Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told Al Jazeera.
The agreement comes years after the DOJ first investigated conditions at juvenile correctional facilities in Ohio in 2007. That investigation found “constitutional deficiencies” in how the state used physical force, administered mental health care, conducted grievance investigations and processing as well as how it used seclusion, or solitary confinement, DOJ said.
DOJ said the practices were rampant and sought an order to limit solitary confinement at four facilities, a request that adds to a 2008 lawsuit raising concerns about seclusion and inadequate mental health services in the system, the Associated Press reported.
Consequences of solitary
The agreement also means that Ohio must stop using disciplinary seclusion on juveniles with mental health needs for all but the most “most serious offenses,” the DOJ said. It will require the state to regularly check on the safety of young people put in solitary confinement as well as limit the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure, which has been at the heart of the controversy.
“What’s happening now is civil rights lawyers are attacking these practices and increasingly judges are agreeing with them, that solitary confinement has no place in the juvenile justice system,” Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow at UC-Berkley School of Law, told Al Jazeera.
The DOJ also said that Ohio will have to make sure that juveniles in its facilities receive “mental health treatment to prevent and address the conditions and behaviors that led to seclusion.”
As the ACLU's Fettig pointed out, in 2012 the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry said that it opposed the use of solitary confinement in juvenile correctional facilities because the “potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis."
“By putting them in solitary confinement, we’re doing exactly the opposite of what we need to do, which is to foster their positive development so they can go back into society and thrive as human beings,” Fettig said.
Krisberg, meanwhile, said that putting a young person already upset and going through an emotional crisis into seclusion can often make the problem worse, adding “there’s not a shred of evidence that putting somebody in solitary confinement helps them.”
'19th Century practice'
“If a young person at a youth correctional facility is going through some crisis, you don’t want to isolate them, you want to connect them even more closely with staff," Krisberg said. "That’s exactly when they ought to have people talking with them, and connecting with them and finding out what’s going on and doing whatever is necessary to calm the youth down and move them in a positive direction. Rather than isolation, you want engagement.”
As for the current status of solitary confinement around states in the country, experts pointed out that a number of states including New York, Massachusetts, California and Missouri have reformed their seclusion practices, either tremendously scaling back its usage or not using the practice at all.
The circumstances that led to the agreement in Ohio are likely to play out again, according to Fettig.
"I think we can expect reforms across the country," she said."If states want to get ahead of the Department of Justice coming in and interceding on behalf of children in their custody, they should start changing their practices now."
Krisberg, for his part, sees a similar trend developing across the country as well. He pointed out that the Americans with Disabilities Act and Prison Rape Elimination Act are two key pieces of legislation that will play a major factor in how the issue of solitary confinement plays out across the states.
"What we’re going to see is more and more pressure, where the DOJ is going to get involved. Most states will come into compliance. Some will fight it, but will lose,” he said. “It’s a 19th century practice, which we’re trying to get rid of. So I think we’re going to see the end of it in almost every place."