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End solitary confinement for Ohio youth: Leah Winsberg (Opinion)


18342117-small“I really wanted to die. I felt hopeless.” Those are the words of Kenny, who never contemplated suicide until he was placed in seclusion in an Ohio juvenile correctional facility at the age of 17. Over a period of six months, Kenny spent nearly 82 days in isolation — 19 days straight at one point.

This practice of solitary confinement is destructive, counterproductive and unsafe.

report from the U.S. Department of Justice states, “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.”

Children in seclusion may spend more than 22 hours a day in an isolated, windowless cell, deprived of human contact. By design, the cells used for solitary confinement are often stark and devoid of any positive aesthetic qualities for stimulation. Youths in some facilities have been isolated under these conditions for days, months or even for years.

Illinois and New York recently made sweeping changes to the use of seclusion on youths in state correctional facilities. Although Ohio’s Department of Youth Services has agreed to limit its use, no law prohibits any Ohio facility from placing youths in seclusion.

Facilities may use seclusion as a mechanism for a variety of reasons, including discipline for rule infractions, protection of youths from threats within the institution and management of special populations (high-risk youths with assaultive behaviors or those who present a danger to themselves).

Seclusion is often used in lieu of adequate staff training, supervision and mental health services.

Solitary confinement may also be used as a component of behavioral treatment or as a short-term emergency procedure, and in those cases is not considered confinement for the purposes of this article.

Youths in adult jails, because they must be separated from adults, and children with behavioral health issues are at a greater risk of being placed in solitary confinement. Ohio has made progress in keeping youths out of adult jails, but there is still a lack of oversight in adult prisons and jails, detention centers and residential treatment facilities.

The solution calls for efforts to reduce the amounts of time and circumstances under which solitary confinement is used; mandatory reporting for state and local facilities using seclusion for even brief periods; and requiring youths who experience isolation to be evaluated immediately by a mental health professional for trauma.

The U.S. Department of Justice has documented how extreme isolation can cause trauma and can increase the chance of self-mutilation and suicide. Isolation can also exacerbate a youth’s underlying mental health issues or cause serious psychological harm, thereby creating symptoms of mental illness. Adolescence is a critical time for brain development and isolating youths during this time may have profound, and potentially irreparable, lifelong effects.

Youths in isolation are frequently denied access to critical services to which they are entitled, including education, recreation and therapeutic programming necessary for success after they are released. Because these services are withheld, youths return to their communities suffering from untreated mental and behavioral health needs that increase their chance of recidivism.

Drew, placed in solitary at 13, stated that seclusion “disables you when you come out,” and that people in the community don’t understand that. “It’s not that we’re crazy, but it’s that a piece of our sanity has been damaged by seclusion.”

When asked to describe something good about himself, a 15-year-old responded, “I’ve been locked up so long, there is nothing good about me anymore.”

This is a clear example of the devastating effects of solitary confinement. Isn’t it time that Ohioans demanded better for our children?

Until just 10 years ago, the United States was the only country in the world with a juvenile death penalty. The U.S. Supreme Court determined in 2005 that the execution of minors constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

The United Nations has long condemned the execution of minors, as it is considered torture under international human rights law. It seems unthinkable that our great nation tolerated this inhumane practice until just recently. Based on the detrimental effects, it comes as no surprise that solitary confinement is also considered torture by the United Nations, condemned for anyone under the age of 18.

I am certain that 10 years from now we will look back with the same sense of bewilderment, wondering how we tolerated the shameful practice of placing children in solitary confinement. I can only hope that Ohioans will stand up and take action now, making this state a leader in ending this destructive and archaic practice.

Ohio is the first state to have a campaign to prevent youths from being placed in solitary during any out-of-home placement, except for the briefest times for intervention. This includes state juvenile and adult facilities, adult jails, youth detention centers and residential treatment facilities.

Sign the Children’s Law Center petition asking Gov. John Kasich for regulation and monitoring around any use of solitary confinement, disallowing its use as a means of punishment, and disallowing its use for extended periods, so youths can exercise their constitutional rights to education, health and medical care and recreation.

Although solitary confinement already has had a chilling effect on the lives of countless youths, we can act now to ensure vulnerable children are protected in the future.

Sign the petition: www.childrenslawky.org/stop-solitary-confinement/

Leah Winsberg is a Cleveland Heights resident and a third-year law student at Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law.

 

– From Cleveland.com

Photo by, Lisa DeJong/The Plain Dealer

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