Prevent Harm to Incarcerated Youths by Stuart Grassian

Posted: March 17, 2013 in News and politics

Right now, Florida’s correctional system is harming its children.

In adult jails and prisons across the state, youths are held in solitary confinement for days, weeks, even months at a time. While in solitary, these young people are alone in a cell for more than 22 hours a day with extremely limited access to exercise, reading and writing materials, contact with family members, educational programming, drug treatment, mental health services or any rehabilitative programming.

While this practice is frequently justified as the only means of keeping them safe in an adult prison, such a rationalization is simply inadequate. In the end, it produces irreversible harm to the youths so confined and greater danger to the community to which these youths will someday return.

Not surprisingly, individuals who have been subjected to solitary confinement are at increased risk to the community and at increased risk of future criminal conduct.

“Corrections” must mean more than the warehousing of individuals in a toxic environment. Especially with youths, it must focus on increasing the individual’s chance of living a productive life and increasing the community’s chance to be free of the burden of fear.

In more than 30 years as a psychiatrist with significant expertise regarding the psychiatric consequences of solitary confinement, I’ve seen the terrible damage such treatment does to human beings. Over the years, I’ve toured countless prisons and jails, interviewed and evaluated hundreds of prisoners — both adults and juveniles — and discussed isolation practices and procedures with correctional staff and officials from around the country.

One thing is clear from these years of professional work and from the massive body of literature regarding the effects of isolation and perceptual deprivation: Solitary confinement causes significant psychiatric harm, which is in many cases grave and irreversible.

Florida now has the chance to lower the cost of housing youths in solitary confinement and improve outcomes with the Youth in Solitary Confinement Reduction Act, SB 812. This bill would protect young people by ensuring that they are not subject to the same extreme solitary confinement as adults.

It also would take into account their special developmental needs by ensuring that youth have access to education and other rehabilitative services when subject to cell confinement, whether for disciplinary or protective reasons.

Importantly, the bill recognizes the heightened need to protect youths from self-harm and suicide when held in adult custody by ensuring that proper mental health monitoring and treatment occurs when a youth is in crisis. Also, a youth whose suicide risk is too great for the correctional facility to address would be transferred to an appropriate mental health facility.

By passing SB 812, Florida would take the lead in preventing the damage of youth solitary, and show the rest of the country a better path for treating and rehabilitating young people.

[ Dr. Stuart Grassian of Chestnut Hill, Mass., is a board-certified psychiatrist and was on the teaching staff of the Harvard Medical School from 1974 until 2002. He is an expert on the psychiatric effects of stringent conditions of confinement. He wrote this column for the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. ]

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