Does Putting Young Offenders in Solitary Confinement Do More Harm than Good?

© Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times/TNS Daivion Davis sits in his apartment on May 7, 2015 in Los Angeles. Davis, 21, just got out of prison, where he went to solitary confinement more than three dozen times while he was serving time for murder…
© Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times/TNS Daivion Davis sits in his apartment on May 7, 2015 in Los Angeles. Davis, 21, just got out of prison, where he went to solitary confinement more than three dozen times while he was serving time for murder…

Daivion Davis, 21, was convicted of second-degree attempted murder and voluntary manslaughter in 2009 after he opened fire in a gang shooting that killed a 16-year-old honors student attending the homecoming football game at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif.

During his time at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, he made more than three dozen trips to the solitary confinement unit, Davis says.

Those stays, he says, ranged from four hours to 17 days. A few times, guards sent him there for fighting. At other times, they put him in “the box” for walking too slowly, not going to his room when ordered, for disrespecting staff or for drug possession. Over time, he says, his anger grew, trips to solitary became more frequent, and his stays became longer.

In 2011, he says, he was transferred to a facility in Ventura where, for whatever reason, guards never put him into solitary confinement. “That’s when I finally started thinking better,” says Davis, who is now living in an apartment provided by a charity and attending Los Angeles Mission College.

Juvenile and mental health advocates and officials nationwide have long debated whether placing young inmates like Davis in “the box,” or any form of solitary confinement, does more harm than good.

In May, Contra Costa County settled a lawsuit brought by two public interest law firms. The county agreed to stop putting juveniles in solitary confinement as a form of punishment or when doing so simply seemed expedient.

State legislators are pushing to pass a bill by summer’s end that would eliminate solitary confinement for juveniles except for detainees who become a physical threat to themselves or others — and prohibiting it even in those cases if the threat is caused by a mental illness. If the bill becomes law, California will join a national trend moving away from solitary confinement for juveniles.

Detention facility officials’ use of terms such as “special handling unit” and “administrative segregation” make it difficult to track the number of juveniles in solitary confinement. As of 2011, the Department of Justice reported that 61,423 minors were being held in 2,047 juvenile facilities nationally, of which roughly 1 in 5 appear to have used some form of isolation.

In recent years, 19 states and the District of Columbia have ended the practice of punishing detainees younger than 18 by isolating them. New York City went one step further and banned solitary confinement for Rikers Island inmates up to age 21.

Anyone who has sat on the stainless steel stools of the spare day rooms or walked the grass-tufted concrete of California’s juvenile detention facilities has heard young detainees and guards talk about “the box” to describe the constantly looming threat.

A recent report showed that 43 percent of the youths at Camp Scudder in Santa Clarita spent more than 24 hours in solitary confinement. The department did not release the reasons behind the placements nor the mental health conditions of those affected.

According to Los Angeles County’s Probation Department handbook, guards can send inmates to solitary confinement for “readjustment or administrative purposes” or to monitor them for mental health issues. The purpose, it says, is “to maintain order, safety and security.”

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Source: Los Angeles Times | Garrett Therolf