Advocates, Civil Rights Groups Urge N.J. to Stop Solitary Confinement of Children

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
July 15, 2013 12:00 am

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ACLU-NJ Joins a Nationwide Movement Calling for an End of Solitary Confinement of Juveniles, Recognized as a Form of Torture

July 15, 2013

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TRENTON, N.J — Advocates from across New Jersey today called for the state to end its use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for children in its custody. Nine advocacy groups submitted a petition to Kevin Brown, the Executive Director of New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice Commission, urging the state to adopt new regulations in its treatment of juveniles in their care.

“We hope this petition is just the first part of a productive conversation with New Jersey officials to eliminate the use of solitary confinement of children in state custody,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “At every level of society, we recognize that one-size-fits-all does not work with children, and nowhere is this more critical than in the juvenile justice system. There is no justification for subjecting children to solitary confinement as punishment, period, and New Jersey’s laws must change accordingly.”

A broad coalition of groups – Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the American Friends Service Committee, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, New Jersey Association on Correction, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, People’s Organization for Progress, Rutgers Children’s Justice Clinic and Rutgers Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic – submitted a petition urging New Jersey to end solitary confinement of juveniles, a practice recognized internationally as torture.

“All of the children in New Jersey’s detention centers will be released eventually, no matter how long their sentences, because young people legally cannot receive a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” said Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel. “When young people do rejoin society after incarceration, we have to ask ourselves who we want to emerge: someone capable of living a productive life, or someone who has spent time in solitary confinement, or someone who has been psychologically damaged by solitary confinement. For the safety of society, for the safety of corrections officers, and for the long-term health of our young people, solitary confinement of young people needs to end in New Jersey now.”

The groups are proposing changes to the law that would eliminate the state’s authority to isolate juveniles in solitary confinement for five days at a time as a form of punishment or pending a disciplinary hearing. New Jersey law currently allows juveniles to be placed in solitary confinement for up to five days at a time, even though humane alternatives such as graduated sanctions and positive reinforcement exist. Yet one juvenile inmate held in detention in New Jersey spent up to 41 consecutive days in solitary confinement in 2009 according to the lawsuit Troy D. and O’Neill S. v. Mickens et al. The other plaintiff in the case spent more time in solitary confinement awaiting his disciplinary hearing than the actual length of solitary confinement he was given to serve as a result of that hearing.

“Think about the inner turmoil inside every teenager, and then imagine a young person stuck inside a windowless cell, alone, for 23 hours a day,” said Laura Cohen, professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark. “Children occupy a unique place in our society and are more likely to successfully rehabilitate through other, more humane forms of punishment. Solitary confinement is harmful, costly, and doesn’t protect the public.”

The proposal to eliminate long-term solitary confinement would not preclude corrections officials from short-term, structured isolation for protection of adolescents when circumstances demand it.

Several states — Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Oklahoma and West Virginia — have banned punitive juvenile solitary confinement outright, and several others, such as Mississippi, have placed strict limitations on the use of the practice. Experts from a range of fields and affiliations, from the Department of Justice to the United Nations, have warned of the deleterious effects solitary confinement has on children.

Advocates in New Jersey call for these changes amid a nationwide movement to end the practice of routinely isolating young people in cells or rooms for 22-24 hours per day. In the past several years, the Supreme Court has issued several decisions reiterating the American legal system’s long-held belief that the most severe punishments – life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and the death penalty – are not appropriate for children given the special circumstances of their developmental stages of life. Studies have shown that solitary confinement can be especially traumatizing to young people because of the tremendous physiological changes they undergo in their adolescence.

Experts across disciplines, from corrections officials to social scientists, have observed that solitary confinement causes or worsens mental health problems in adolescents, and mentally ill children in solitary confinement often lack access to psychological counseling during that period. As a result, the potential for rehabilitation by virtue of their age weakens because of the irreversible harm solitary confinement causes to their intellectual and emotional development.

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