Not to be missed (though we did, initially) is a recent post on the Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, titled Solitary Confinement at Texas Youth Prisons: A Brief History. As blogger Scott Henson points out, every time violence increases in the youth prisons under the management of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, elected officials begin calling for an expanded use of solitary confinement–which in Texas goes under the euphemism of “behavioral management plans.”
The latest round in this battle concerns the opening of a new block of solitary confinement cells for violent and disruptive teenagers. To its credit, the leadership of the TJJD appears to be opposing the move, arguing that it will disrupt any educational and rehabilitative efforts. But the chair of the Texas Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, John Whitmire (a Houston Democrat), supports the expanded use of isolation, according to an article in the Austin American-Statesman, and referred to the kids in questions as “thugs”: ”They should already have opened that place — for safety, for common sense. This boils down to a policy by some of ‘hug a thug’: If you just talk to the worst offenders enough, they’ll be nice. That’s crazy.”
If the pro-solitary camp prevails, Henson points out, it may eventually run into legal limits placed on the use of juvenile solitary confinement, based on a federal lawsuit settlement that dates back to the 1980s. According to a 2008 report by the juvenile justice system’s ombudsman:
The 1983 settlement agreement that ended litigation in Morales v. Turman prohibits facilities from using isolation as a mode of retaliation or as a first-resort punishment, and limits its use to when the facility’s superintendent agrees that an inmate is out of control and dangerous. When the inmate is sufficiently under control, he or she shall be released. Isolation should not be used for more than 3 hours. The agreement, with a few exceptions, allows placement in security only as a last resort, and for no longer than 24 hours. If the inmate is kept in security longer than 24 hours, he or she is entitled to impartial review and appeal of his or her confinement. While in isolation or security, inmates must receive: daily visits from the superintendent and personnel from clinical, social work, and medical units; appropriate psychological and medical services; and the same food, prepared in the same manner, as other inmates.
Whitmore and other advocates of expanded solitary confinement, however, seem determined not to let a mere federal court order stand in their way. Henson argues that they are using solitary as a punitive response rather than look at the staffing and structural problems that actually contribute to violence in youth facilities.
The controversy over juvenile solitary confinement is playing out in other states, as well. The practice was recently banned in Mississippi after revelations of horrendous abuses at a privately run youth facility. But in New York City, the use of solitary confinement for everyone, including kids, is on the rise, despite ample evidence of other problems increasing violence in Rikers Island’s youth jail. And in California, a bill that would have placed some modest limits on the widespread use of juvenile solitary couldn’t even make it out of committee. All of which goes to show, once again, that there are no red or blue states when it comes to the issue of solitary confinement.