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Punishment is inhumane, say experts

Laura Cohen

Laura Cohen, director of the Rutgers Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic

Solitary confinement for incarcerated juveniles has been condemned by psychologists, federal agencies and the United Nations for hindering rehabilitation efforts and damaging children’s mental health.

Yet according to a Rutgers juvenile justice advocate, many of the 300 juveniles who are incarcerated daily in secure facilities in New Jersey have been punished with solitary confinement for several consecutive days.
“Adolescents' brains continue to develop well into their 20s. As a result, they are uniquely vulnerable to the traumatic effects of isolation,’’ says Laura Cohen, a Rutgers School of Law-Newark professor and director of the Rutgers Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic.
Rutgers law school faculty are working with the ACLU and civil rights and child welfare organizations to end the practice. They created a petition urging the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission, which doesn’t release statistics on how often solitary is used, to substitute other  punishments instead.
“We hope that the state ... will prohibit the use of solitary as a disciplinary measure, except for very brief ‘cooling off’ periods, no longer than several hours,’’ said Cohen. “We also hope that it will generate discussion within the agency about instituting more developmentally appropriate responses to wrongdoing.’’
Cohen, who co-directs the New Jersey Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network with Sandra Simkins, a law professor at Rutgers-Camden, has been a longtime advocate of juvenile justice reform. In 2009, the network, which also includes the Camden Children’s Justice  Clinic, directed by Simkins, became involved in an effort to provide incarcerated juveniles with more access to lawyers and improve conditions at youth correctional institutions. 
The initiative, funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, gave lawyers and law students unprecedented access to incarcerated youth in New Jersey. 
“We found that a large percentage of our clients have spent time in solitary confinement, or ‘the box,’ as punishment for both minor and more  serious disciplinary infractions,’’ Cohen says.  Infractions can range from back talk and writing on the walls to injuring another juvenile. One juvenile client, who was mentally ill, was in isolation for six months prior to the network's involvement in the case, says Cohen. The United Nations defines more than 15 days of solitary confinement for juveniles as torture. 
After she shared her concerns with Rutgers School of Law-Newark law professor Douglas Eakeley, he helped form a coalition of organizations to end solitary confinement, including the ACLU,  New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the Lowenstein Center for Public Interest, all frequent partners of the clinic. 
The coalition’s ultimate hope is that state correctional facilities will work with juveniles in less punitive ways to help them successfully readjust to life after incarceration.  Since filing the petition last month, members have met with the commission and anticipate additional talks, says Cohen.
“When young people 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 been psychologically damaged by solitary confinement,” said Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel, according to an ACLU press release.
“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,” Shalom says.
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, according to the ACLU. One juvenile inmate held in detention in New Jersey spent up to 41 consecutive days in solitary confinement in 2009, the organization stated in a press release.
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, according to the ACLU.