Theoretically, the purpose of the juvenile corrections system is rehabilitation of juveniles who have committed crimes. In fact, all children incarcerated in the juvenile correction system will be released into the community as there is no such thing as life in prison for someone convicted as a juvenile. So, both the incarcerated juveniles and society at large are better off if rehabilitation is successful.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s juvenile corrections system has failed to accomplish this basic goal of rehabilitation at its 2 locked facilities, Lincoln Hills (for boys) and the adjoining Copper Lake (for girls). In fact, the treatment of these juveniles has gotten so abusive that the FBI has been investigating these facilities for approximately 2 years. While the outcome of that investigation is still pending, more recently the ACLU filed a civil lawsuit against the State of Wisconsin for abusing juveniles at these facilities, including, among other things, by the use of pepper spray and solitary confinement.
According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, the heavy use of solitary confinement and pepper spray violate the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process. Some inmates are confined to 7-foot-by-10-foot cells for months at a time. They typically get out for just an hour or two a day but during that time they are on a belt held by guards or chained to a desk.
Today, I was interviewed on the radio about the use of solitary confinement at these facilities. You can hear the interview here. In recent years, seven states have passed laws that limit or prohibit the use of solitary confinement for youth in detention facilities. For example, Connecticut law states that no child at any time shall be held in solitary confinement, but “seclusion” may be used periodically if authorized and the young person is checked every thirty minutes.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “the potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis. Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions. Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”
In 1990, the United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty establish minimum standards for the protection of juveniles in correctional facilities which specifically prohibits juvenile solitary confinement, stating, “All disciplinary measures constituting cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment shall be strictly prohibited, including corporal punishment, placement in a dark cell, closed or solitary confinement or any other punishment that may compromise the physical or mental health of the juvenile concerned.“
Wisconsin juveniles should not have to wait for the outcome of the FBI investigation or the ACLU lawsuit. The Wisconsin legislature should promptly act to prohibit the use of solitary confinement at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake. This is not just the humane way to treat these juveniles. Traumatizing these children decreases the likelihood of successful rehabilitation and increases the chance that they will commit another crime upon their release. If policymakers truly care about decreasing crime, then they will end this barbaric practice in this legislative session.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.