To begin with, it impacts more on men and boys, who make up the majority of the incarcerated population at both the juvenile and adult levels, and who are more likely to be subjected to harsh punishment for the same crime than women and girls.
My attention was recently drawn to this news story on Mother Jones. According to the report, the Federal Justice Department of the U.S. is suing the state of Ohio over the practice of placing mentally ill boys in juvenile detention facilities in solitary confinement. The article is horrifying. There's no excuse the state can come up with for this practice. It's cruel, and it's counterproductive as a means of effecting positive change in the individual's behavior.
As I said on Reddit, I've written to several of my state's representatives, both in the house and the senate. I had to divide my letter into 4 parts to send to each one. I hope at least one representative reads what I've written and considers what I have to say on the topic. I kept my letter gender neutral. Due to extensive feminist activism just for the benefit of female prisoners, I doubt this practice is used where girls are incarcerated, but if it is, it needs just as much to be stopped as when it is done to boys.
The following is what I sent out:
I've recently read of the Justice Department's lawsuit against the state of Ohio in response to the use of solitary confinement as a punishment against inmates with mental health issues in juvenile detention facilities. While I think it's hypocritical of the federal justice department to file such a suit when men in federal prisons are subjected to equally or more cruel and inhuman conditions, I am compelled to speak out against the continued use of solitary confinement in Ohio's juvenile justice system.
In considering this issue it is vital to remember who we're talking about. Yes, they're all in these facilities because they've violated laws. Yes, some of them exhibit dangerous behavior. Yes, some of them exhibit dysfunctional behavior that confounds the adults given charge of monitoring them. However, none of those things eliminate the fact that inmates in juvenile detention facilities are kids.
Kids who end up in the justice system aren't there because they've made a conscious, considered decision to reject the bounds of law. They're incarcerated because the adult guides in their lives, their parents, their extended families, their educators - those responsible for them - have failed to provide them with what they needed to stay within the bounds of the law. Whether that's simply a lack of good guidance and wise nurturing, failure to meet the child's medical needs, or falling back on drugs when behavioral therapy is needed along with them, we're failing our kids more and more. In the case of kids with mental health issues, it may very well be that the behavior which led to their incarceration was a manifestation of symptoms that if better addressed, would cease to affect the child's behavior in a damaging way. Instead, when adults' failure to meet a mentally ill child's health needs results in the child failing to meet society's standards, he's placed in a facility for punishment where conditions will likely reinforce his behavioral symptoms.
Solitary confinement should be eliminated as a punishment used on incarcerated juveniles, for more reason than its abusive impact on the mentally ill. Its exacerbating effect on mental health symptoms only highlights its damaging impact on the human mind. Even in healthy adults, solitary confinement beyond a few days has been shown to do serious mental harm.
Stuart Grassian, a Board Certified Psychiatrist who was on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School for over twenty-five years, stated in his report "Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement" (http://law.wustl.edu/journal/22/p325grassian.pdf) that in his studies, he had found a specific psychiatric syndrome associated with solitary confinement. Symptoms prisoners developed in solitary confinement included hallucinations, panic attacks, difficulty with thinking and memory, paranoia, and intrusive obsessional thoughts and problems with impulse control. Even if subjecting an individual to this experience was not cruel, it's counter-productive to use it as a means of reforming criminal behavior, which can stem from some of these same issues.
The root of this problem appears to be in government trying to do everything on autopilot instead of treating people like people with human conditions for which there are human approaches to remedy instead of automatic ones. Those running the system treat their charges as criminals first, and kids second, when it should be the other way around. If the state is going to take custody of these kids, then the state is responsible for their well-being, not just their containment.
A lawsuit by the federal justice department may be an inappropriately heavy-handed response, but so is severely punishing kids for the "crime" of exhibiting behavioral symptoms that are inconvenient to the adults charged with their care. We do not severely punish children for catching cold, suffering asthma, or having broken bones. What is it about mental illness that convinces the healthy that punishment will cure its symptoms?
If parents of mentally ill children severely punished them for exhibiting symptoms, child protective services would remove them from their homes. It would happen even faster if it were found that severe punishment was being used in lieu of medical treatment. Why is the state exempt from that standard of care when children are in its custody?
I strongly question the value of placing youth with diagnosed mental health issues in juvenile detention facilities that are apparently designed to deal with willful criminal activity. What will the environment do to provide them with the tools and resources they need to reform their dysfunctional behavior? What will these kids learn in these facilities, besides "no one cares about you, so you might as well care only about yourself?"
Ohio needs facilities which are designed to suit the needs of kids whose offending behavior occurs as a manifestation of mental illness rather than lack of discipline. These should be staffed by medical personnel with some law enforcement training, not the other way around. A change like that could be made transferring inmates with difficult mental health symptoms to existing mental health facilities address the care and protection of patients with symptoms that manifest in dangerous behavior. Facilities approved for such a cooperative treatment effort could be provided with staff members with the same training as detention facility guards if needed. If the state can't approve existing facilities then perhaps medical personnel who specialize in treating juveniles with mental health issues could cooperate with the state on converting an existing juvenile detention facility into a facility for the treatment and care of youth with mental health issues with symptoms that manifest in criminal behavior.
A medical environment would not only remedy the human rights violation inherent in placing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement, it could also have a genuinely reforming impact on them by providing them with effective evaluation and behavioral therapy so they may develop better habits of self-control. I urge you to consider the idea of approaching criminal behavior in Ohio's youth as a children's rights issue first, a mental health issue second, and a criminal issue last and least, to eliminate solitary confinement as a punishment in youth detention facilities, and to offer better medical care to mentally ill inmates.