Advocates seek to end solitary confinement options for young offenders
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.
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 “the box,” or any form of solitary confinement, does more harm than good.
Earlier this month, 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 the age of 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% 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.”
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 (D-San Francisco), 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,” Leno says. “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 confinement 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.
Advocates pushing a similar proposal in 2012 failed when they hit resistance from probation system bosses and union representatives who said they used the practice as a last resort to maintain security.
“It’s a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist,” Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the state Division of Juvenile Justice, said at the time.
But Powers, a longtime leader in the state association for county probation department heads, says that he does not expect the organization to oppose the proposal this time.
“Sen. Leno has a lot of credibility among the probation chiefs, and he is a pretty reasonable guy,” Powers says. “There is a willingness by the chiefs to make this bill workable for probation and still satisfy the author and the advocates.”
Sticking points remain.
One recent study found that 92% 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.
“It’s like Sacramento gives us no option,” Powers says. “In some ways, they are going to force us to violate the law on the first day it is passed. What would they have me do?”
Leno says he understands the concern and will find a solution. “I can’t be more specific at this time.”
But he remains steadfast that solitary confinement is something “we can all agree will ultimately only exacerbate that situation when it comes to the severely mentally ill.”
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.
“Solitary just leaves the kid floundering in his own island. It doesn’t show the way out,” says Cheryl Bonacci, a longtime chaplain in the county’s camps and halls. She says she has watched the use of solitary confinement diminish over the years, but she still believes that it is sometimes used not to protect detainees or staff, but for punishment or the staff’s convenience.
Davis, the former detainee who is now a college student, remembers “the box” vividly.
He recalls what it felt like to walk into the room whose white walls were covered with years of gang moniker etchings, carrying only a Bible and wearing a sweatshirt, underwear and socks but no pants.
“It was freezing cold. I slept on a thin mattress on the floor with no sheets, under a strong air-conditioning vent that never stopped,” he says.
Sometimes a guard would give him a book, then another guard would find it with him and give him more time in solitary, he says.
Each day, guards arrived to strip-search Davis. They allowed him to visit the restroom only on their own erratic schedules. Sometimes, he says, he had to urinate into his sweatshirt in the corner of his cell.
Felicia Cotton, a deputy director for the Probation Department, says confidentiality rules bar her from commenting on specific cases, but she notes that policies require guards to check in on youth every 15 minutes to ensure they are safe and have access to the bathroom. “We have zero tolerance for staff who violate these policies.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl says studies convinced her that incarcerated youths can become more violent after solitary confinement. She says she hopes a state ban will be followed locally by the creation of a citizens’ oversight commission and professional monitor. Their responsibilities, she says, would include keeping solitary confinement in check.
“If they are prone to stab their fellow kids,” she says, “then isolation is an appropriate factor, and it would be more humane to have a guard and mental health worker there to talk to them than to just keep them in their cell and hope the problem goes away.”
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