Monday, February 22, 2016

We should curtail solitary confinement for juvenile offenders

An honest conversation on whether solitary confinement is "cruel and unusual" punishment is needed

The ACLU of Wisconsin is urging the state to limit its use of solitary confinement, especially for juveniles in the state’s corrections system.

Citing Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote in 2015 that “near-total isolation exacts a terrible price” on prisoners, the ACLU is recommending that the state Department of Corrections be open and transparent about its use of solitary confinement, and urges using it on a limited basis if it is to be used at all.

“[Incoming Department of Corrections] Secretary Litscher should seize the opportunity of his appointment to eliminate solitary confinement of juveniles, radically reduce its use among all prisoners, and submit to independent oversight,” the ACLU of Wisconsin wrote.

How we treat juvenile offenders in Wisconsin is especially concerning as of late. Recent investigations of the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and the Copper Lake School for Girls, which house young offenders from across the state, have revealed alarming allegations of abuse and mistreatment of children there.

In one instance a youth had to have his toes amputated due to an altercation with a guard who slammed his foot in the door. Other allegations of sexual and physical abuse abound, with the Walker administration apparently missing signs of the abuse as far back as 2012.
Records of the incident show clearly that despite Walker's repeated statements that he was surprised by more recent allegations of abuse, his office and his administration were told of troubling conduct at the prison in February 2012.
With these allegations in mind, we have to start considering what is the proper way to rehabilitate our inmates, especially juveniles who still have developing minds.

Solitary confinement is one topic that warrants attention. According to the Atlantic magazine, solitary confinement “wreaks profound neurological and psychological damage” for young offenders, “causing depression, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, anxiety, and anger.”

The effects of solitary confinement on the young mind are indeed disturbing, and expose a cyclical pattern that sees no end for those that are subjected to its practice (emphases in bold mine).
One of the reasons that solitary is particularly harmful to youth is that during adolescence, the brain undergoes major structural growth. Particularly important is the still-developing frontal lobe, the region of the brain responsible for cognitive processing such as planning, strategizing, and organizing thoughts or actions. One section of the frontal lobe, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, continues to develop into a person’s mid-20s. It is linked to the inhibition of impulses and the consideration of consequences.
Prolonged exposure to solitary can cause lifelong problems. For others, the outcome can be fatal: half of all suicides that occur in juvenile prisons happen while the youth is in solitary confinement, and 62 percent of suicides occurred among inmates who had been frequently subjected to the practice (PDF).

It’s not necessarily possible to rid the system of solitary confinement entirely. Most recommendations, however, suggest limiting its use, arguing it should only be done when absolutely necessary for the safety of others (or of that particular inmate). And the time that a prisoner, especially a juvenile offender, should be exposed to solitary ought to be shortened, by no longer than two weeks by most recommendations.

When “troubled” kids get sent to juvenile detention centers, we often forget or explain away their ill-treatment. Many people believe even believe they are deserving of what they get exposed to. But prisoners, especially those who are still young, deserve proper treatment, even if they committed a crime that landed them in prison.

A conviction of a crime doesn’t allow us to expose offenders to cruel and unusual punishment. It’s high-time that we consider, and have an honest conversation on, whether using solitary confinement as a punishment (especially for juveniles) fits that definition.

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