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California lawmaker seeks to limit juvenile solitary confinement

Imagine being locked in a small, concrete room alone for days -- even weeks -- on end. In "the box," you seemingly have no rights. You can't even use the bathroom freely, and you are forced to sleep on a bare, thin mattress. If you are lucky, you have a book to read, but it could be taken away at any time if the wrong person catches you with it.

Few people deserve to be put in a situation like this. However, California juvenile detention facilities often use solitary confinement as a form of punishment for bad behavior. Starting a fight, talking back to a guard or even walking too slowly could all get you sent to "the box." California legislators are hoping to change this with a new bill.

The bill would lump California in with 20 other states that have banned solitary confinement as punishment for inmates who are under 18. It would only be allowed if an inmate is deemed a physical threat to himself or herself or others, and even then it must be a last resort. If mental illness is a primary factor in an inmate's aggression, solitary confinement would not be allowed. Instead, an inmate must be sent to a mental health treatment facility to get appropriate care.

Proponents of the bill argue that solitary confinement hurts young inmates more than it helps them. The U.S. Department of Justice found the half of the juvenile inmates who committed suicide over a four-year period had experienced solitary confinement. There is also evidence showing the young people who are forced into isolation are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and paranoia.

If the bill is passed, guards and others who work with inmates would be required to use their training to address behavioral issues.

Many juvenile offenders have a chance at becoming productive members of society after serving their term. Forcing them into isolation for certain behavioral problems may hurt their chances of being successful in the future. It will be interesting to see if the bill passes and, if so, how it impacts the lives of juvenile offenders.

Source: LA Times, "Advocates seek to end solitary confinement options for young offenders," Garrett Therolf, May 28, 2015

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