Opinion: Youth detention

POSTED: 06/16/14 10:51 PM

The rule that minors are not allowed to be detained with adults comes across as humane and loaded with good intentions. There is however a flipside to this policy, because where do these minors end up if they have to be kept apart from adult prisoners? In the United States the cure is at times worse than the disease: youngsters end up in solitary confinement – a situation that leads to all kinds of side-effects, from mental and psychological disorders to suicide.

The Editorial Board of the New York Times addressed this issue earlier this week. Together with the two reactions it triggered, the piece offers useful information to decision makers in St. Maarten, where youth detention remains a tremendous challenge.

Even if the prison manages to separate youngsters in pointe Blanche from the adult population, and even if this does not lead to solitary confinement, there are still challenges. Many of these youngsters are desperate for counseling, and they are not getting it – or at least not enough. In the recent past such counseling has been offered to the Ministry of Justice for free, but this offer fell on deaf ears – leaving inmates young and old to their own devices.

The effect of this form of neglect is devastating. Not only do inmates become unruly within the prison walls, they are also more likely to go back to their criminal ways after they have served their sentence. Counseling during detention – certainly when it is offered for free – therefore seems to be a no-brainer, but the decision makers in this field seemingly fail to grasp this.

Here is the op-ed from the New York Times, followed by the two reactions.

“States are sending fewer and fewer children to juvenile correctional facilities, partly in response to research showing that locking up young people increase the risk that they will eventually drop out of school and become permanently entangled with the justice system.

This is all to the good. But dealing with low-risk children through community-guidance programs leaves behind a population of severely troubled children who often wind up in solitary confinement instead of receiving the special help they need.

The Justice Department, which has already required several jurisdictions to improve the care of children in custody, underscored that point last month when it settled a long-running lawsuit against the State of Ohio. Under the new agreement, Ohio will sharply reduce and eventually end solitary confinement. It will also ensure that young people receive individual mental health treatment and educational services with the aim of preventing the disruptive behaviors that led to the confinement in the first place.

Solitary confinement, which can lead to mental problems for adults, is especially damaging for children, who are more fragile emotionally. A 2002 Justice Department investigation showed that young people experience symptoms of paranoia, anxiety and depression even after very short periods of isolation. Extended isolation can lead to suicide. According to one national study, half the suicides reported in juvenile facilities were committed by young people in isolation, and in nearly two-thirds of the cases there was some history of solitary confinement.

The conditions of mentally ill or disabled children, who have poor impulse control to begin with, are made far worse when they spend 23 hours in isolation without therapeutic services. Not surprisingly, they emerge angrier and more troubled than when they entered, which means they act out and are shut away yet again.

The Justice Department’s settlement with Ohio puts states on notice that solitary policies need to change. If adopted nationally, the principles in that settlement would go a long way toward humanizing juvenile detention.”

The editorial triggered the following reaction from Abby Anderson, the executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance in Bridgeport.

“Solitary confinement in juvenile facilities places children in harm’s way. They are at even greater risk of isolation in adult jails and prisons.

To comply with federal laws that mandate that inmates under 18 be separated from adults, states commonly place children in solitary “for their own protection.” While this practice may protect them from physical and sexual abuse at the hands of older prisoners, the psychological harm is profound and often permanent.

The Equal Justice Initiative estimates that 10,000 American children are housed in adult jails and prisons on any given day. Ten states continue to set the default age of adult prosecution below 18. All states have transfer laws that allow cases to be moved to adult court.

In Connecticut, children in the child welfare system convicted of no crime can be held in adult prison if a judge orders it.

The single most effective way to end the practice of solitary confinement for children is keep them out of adult jails and prisons.”

A second reaction came from Samuel B. Ross Jr., founder of Green Chimneys, a nonprofit organization that provides residential services to special-needs young people.

The effort by many states not to send young people to juvenile detention facilities is sound. You are right that young people should receive individual mental health treatment and educational services with the aim of preventing the disruptive behaviors that led to confinement.

There has been a great deal said about the cost of not caring. The trend seems to be redirecting spending, and just as mental hospitals are closed, so residential treatment center facilities have been limited by curtailing additional beds for those who might need them. It is unfortunate to see this happening.

Children with educational, intellectual, social, behavioral, emotional and developmental problems are being excluded from local public schools. Parents are forced to seek help when this occurs. We must provide the necessary facilities or face a lifetime of failure for many young people.”


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