By Abby Sewell
Los Angeles County on Tuesday approved sweeping restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for juvenile detainees, joining a larger movement against a practice that some consider cruel and unproductive.
The Board of Supervisors' action bans solitary confinement at youth camps and halls except "as a temporary response to behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to any person."
In those cases, the supervisors said, the isolation should be only for a brief "cooling off" period and should be done in consultation with a mental health professional.
In recent years, 19 states and the District of Columbia have ended the solitary isolation for minors. New York City went one step further and banned solitary confinement for Rikers Island inmates up to age 21.
President Obama earlier this year announced that he would ban solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, but the move was largely symbolic. At the time just 26 people under age 18 were in federal custody.
The practice has been widespread in Los Angeles County. A recent report showed that 43% of the youths at Camp Scudder in Santa Clarita had spent more than 24 hours in solitary confinement. The department did not release the reasons behind the placements.
The use of solitary confinement increased between 2014 and 2015, particularly in the juvenile halls, where the number of referrals to restrictive housing units increased from 2,775 to 4,396, according to Felicia Cotton, the deputy probation chief overseeing juvenile facilities. She attributed the increase in part to the higher-risk profile of youths housed in the lockups as more low-level juvenile offenders have been diverted.
According to Los Angeles County's Probation Department handbook, staff 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."
At Tuesday's board meeting, several former juvenile detainees urged the board to end the practice.
Francisco Martines, 22, said he spent six weeks in solitary confinement in Central Juvenile Hall at age 17. He recalled a freezing room with dirty walls and a torn mattress. The cold air triggered an asthma attack, he said, and he had to wait hours for medical care.
"It was horrible, like an animal in a cage," Martines said.
Alex Sanchez, a gang member turned intervention worker who heads the group Homies Unidos, had similar memories of his time in county juvenile lockups. "I remember in Camp Gonzales, I tried to break my finger ... just to get out of isolation," he said.
Mental health professionals are now notified whenever a child is sent to an isolated unit, and a supervisor must check on the youth within two hours and make a decision about whether to release him or her, said Interim Probation Chief Cal Remington.
"We don't use it for punishment or discipline so much as sometimes you have to separate the kids," Remington said.
The county's three juvenile halls and 13 camps hold about 1,200 youths.
The new rules will first take effect at the Central Juvenile Hall and camps McNair and Scott this month, and are to be rolled out at the other facilities by the end of September. The current isolation units, known as "special housing units," should be converted to other uses, which could include turning them into "cooling down" areas.
The written policy does not specify how long youths can be confined in those areas.
Despite the caveats, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the board is not trying to do "solitary confinement lite.... The thrust of the motion is to eliminate the practice," he said.
In pushing for the shift, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl cited studies that have found solitary confinement "can cause lasting physical and psychological harm ... without any benefit to public safety."
One report by the U.S. Justice Department found that juvenile offenders become anxious, paranoid and depressed even after short periods in solitary confinement.
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich ultimately voted along with the other supervisors to approve the new restrictions. But he said the probation staff needs options to deal with children whose behavior poses a safety threat.
"We have the obligation to maintain the safety and well-being of not just one or two but the entire camp," he said.
In the past, banning juvenile solitary confinement has faced opposition by California's probation officer unions, which expressed fears about safety. But they have recently become publicly neutral.
The L.A. County probation officers' union did not express public opposition to the plan, although Remington said some staff had privately voiced concerns.
Earlier this year in Sacramento, Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) reintroduced a bill that would seek to greatly limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles statewide.
The bill died at the committee level last year before reaching the full Legislature. It was the fourth consecutive year that the effort failed.
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