Bill ends time in ‘the box’ for youthful offenders

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BY GARRETT THEROLF
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

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.

150605_nation02During 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.

National trend
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.

Hard to track
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 one in five 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.

‘Used abusively’
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.”

Los Angeles County Probation Chief Jerry Powers says that his department uses solitary confinement as little as possible and only to keep facilities safe, adding that when guards use it to punish detainees who do not pose a safety threat, the youths are sent there only for a matter of hours. “There is no box.

You think of ‘Cool Hand Luke’ when you think of the box.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno, defines solitary confinement as any time a youth is restricted to a room or cell alone during waking hours.

“We know it’s going on,” says Leno, D-San Francisco. “We know it’s being used abusively. We need to define it, document it and limit it.”

Leno’s bill stipulates that inmates can be held in solitary only for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk and establishes strict reporting requirements. It would allow guards to use solitary confinement in juvenile correctional centers only when an inmate poses an immediate and substantial risk of harming others or threatening the security of the facility — and after less harmful options have been exhausted.

Mental health issue
One recent study found that 92 percent of the incarcerated youths in Los Angeles County have at least a minor mental health diagnosis. The bill prohibits using solitary confinement on those whose mental illness is severe. But some experts expressed skepticism about the proposed solutions.

The bill requires staff to use their training, rather than solitary confinement, to restore calm, but training procedures don’t always work — especially when an inmate becomes detached from reality.

The bill also requires staff to send detainees to a mental health treatment facility rather than to solitary confinement, but regulations limit emergency hospitalizations to 72 hours, and hospitals often discharge youths sooner.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as well as the United Nations, have announced opposition to solitary confinement for juvenile offenders. A 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study showed that juvenile wards in solitary committed half of the 110 suicides over a four-year period in the late 1990s. More than two-thirds had been put into facilities for nonviolent offenses.

A 2002 Justice Department investigation of young inmates showed that many become anxious, paranoid and depressed even after very short periods of isolation.

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