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Ohio Agrees to Stop Using Isolation to Punish Kids in Prison

Thursday, May 22, 2014 at 4:27 PM

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Late yesterday, Ohio agreed to stop using solitary confinement to punish youth in its prisons. The U.S. Department of Justice and private plaintiffs had sued the state over what they said were violations of the juveniles’ constitutional rights. Ideastream’s Joanna Richards reports.

Prisons use isolation in two ways: as punishment, and as a safety measure immediately after violent incidents.

By September 1st, punishments will be limited to four hours, and eventually phased out entirely. Seclusion for safety reasons will be shorter, and closely monitored.

The Justice Department sought relief for kids with mental illness, but the changes apply to all kids in prison.

The plan also calls for more mental health care, since illness often plays a role in landing kids in solitary. Seclusion often worsens their condition.

“He ended up becoming suicidal. He was digging in his arms, at one point he was banging his head,” said Melissa Bucher of her son Kenny, who was 17 when he was incarcerated and is now 18. He spent almost 2,000 hours alone in his cell during a six-month sentence in 2013. That adds up to 83 days. His longest single stretch was 19 days. Like a lot of incarcerated kids, he was punished for getting into fights.

Kenny was diagnosed with a slew of emotional disorders before he ended up behind bars: post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety. His mom says her son’s time in solitary made him much worse.

“I had called up there – ‘Please move him out of this unit, he’s not surviving in there, he’s going crazy,’” she said. “I mean, he started hearing voices.”

Mike knows what that’s like. He asked that we not use his last name. In January he got out of Ohio’s corrections system, at age 20, after serving about five years.

“The longest time I spent in solitary confinement was 18 weeks,” he said. “It felt like I was a caged animal. I’d be in there, literally counting the bricks on the wall.”

Mike’s room in solitary had a toilet, sink, shower and bed, and a tall sliver of a window, about two inches wide. His only contact with other kids was when they walked by his cell, usually making fun of him, because of the prison gown he had to wear. Guards checked to make sure he was alive, but wouldn’t talk to him. He had no books, no pencils. And he only left his cell once a month for a 10-minute psychiatrist’s appointment.

Mike grew up in 37 different foster homes. He says his feelings of neglect and rejection intensified in solitary. It felt like reliving all that old trauma.

“These children are going to come back into our lives,” said Eve Hill, deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “And so we really need to make sure that incarceration of young people is used to rehabilitate them, not just to warehouse and forget them – and certainly not to damage them in ways that make them less and less able to participate in our communities in a positive way,” she said.

The Children’s Law Center, a Kentucky-based advocacy group, along with Cincinnati-based civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein, has been pushing Ohio for years to improve conditions in youth prisons, and represents both Mike and Melissa Bucher’s son, Kenny. Law Center Executive Director Kim Tandy says things have gotten much better. But mental health care was still poor, and isolation was actually increasing. In 2013, lawyers found kids in four facilities spent more than 60,000 hours in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department had started looking into mental health and seclusion in prisons around the country. In March it filed legal action with the advocacy group. The state relented.

“We don’t believe that seclusion has been effective, and that’s why we want to make this change,” said Kim Parsell Jump, a spokeswoman with the Ohio Department of Youth Services. She says the prisons will adjust their strategy to manage inmates’ behavior problems and violence, with more focus on prevention.

With the settlement, “We’re able to focus on our primary mission of rehabilitating youth,” she said.

But the agreement doesn’t call for any additional resources. Parsell Jump says the department can make the changes with better staff training.

Bucher, whose mentally ill son spent so much time alone, says she’s glad for the settlement.

“Hopefully, no other family will ever have to go through what I went through,” she said.

But Bucher’s still angry over the damage her son has suffered. She says she can’t wait to get him home, so he can get the care he needs.

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