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Lawmakers to Consider Limiting Juvenile Solitary Confinement

More than half of suicides within juvenile facilities occur while the young person is in solitary confinement. (Ryan Melaugh/Flickr)
More than half of suicides within juvenile facilities occur while the young person is in solitary confinement. (Ryan Melaugh/Flickr)
February 14, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska lawmakers hold a public hearing Thursday for a bill that would limit the use of juvenile solitary confinement in facilities holding young people.

According to an Inspector General report, last year more than 500 Nebraska youths ages 11 to 18 were held in solitary 2,686 times.

Scout Richters, an attorney with the Nebraska ACLU, says solitary confinement can cause irreparable psychological damage, especially for young people.

"Young people's brains are still developing up until approximately age 26, and that makes them at a particular risk for developing things like depression, anxiety and psychosis as a result of solitary confinement," Richters states.

The measure recommends best practices now at work in 17 other states, and would limit solitary confinement except as a last resort, and then only for short periods of time.

Critics argue that youth facility staff shouldn't have their hands tied by lawmakers, and say removing a person from the general population helps ensure the safety of patients and staff.

Richters agrees that time-outs are sometimes necessary, but says isolated confinement – in some cases for days and even months – should be off limits.

Richters says the use of solitary undermines the state's primary goal for juvenile justice: rehabilitation.

"Nebraska children, our children, deserve better, and we know that there are alternatives that we can be using,” she stresses. “And so it's time that we catch up with other states and national trends in this area."

Richters notes that the practice also disproportionately impacts youths of color. For example, the population of black youths in solitary is almost six times their percentage of the population in the state.

Nebraska Wesleyan student Dylan Murphy plans to testify at the hearing. After becoming confused about paperwork at a psychiatric facility at the age of 14, instead of explaining the form, staff confined Murphy to solitary for more than 10 hours. It took more than a decade of work to undo the damage.

"Fifty-one percent of youth suicides in youth facilities in the nation actually occur while the youths are in solitary confinement,” Murphy points out. “And I can say myself that the only time I actually ever harmed myself in that facility was while I, too, was in solitary."

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - NE