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In Shelby County, a Push to Reduce Youth Solitary Confinement

Juvenile detention facilities around the country routinely put youths in solitary confinement, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. (Adobe Stock)
Juvenile detention facilities around the country routinely put youths in solitary confinement, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. (Adobe Stock)
July 5, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A juvenile detention center in Shelby County has reduced the use of solitary confinement among children in its care, according to a new report from the Center for Children's Law and Policy and other organizations.

In 2012, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found that youths detained at the Shelby County facility were discriminated against, held in unsafe conditions and subjected to solitary confinement.

Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy, points out that confining children to their rooms without anything to do for long periods of time is an abusive practice.

"When the U.S. Department of Justice did its investigation into the Shelby County juvenile court, they found a number of serious constitutional concerns,” Soler points out. “What was happening in Shelby County is that young people were being disciplined for getting into an argument, and they were being put into their rooms for many hours at a time – long past the time when they had calmed down."

As of 2018, records show a sharp reduction in the use of room confinement, and detention center staff must now obtain permission before putting a child in confinement, according to the report.

Soler says Shelby County undertook a variety of reforms, including transferring operation of the juvenile detention center to the Shelby County sheriff, adding new programming and group activities for youths, hiring a full-time counselor, and extending visitation and phone call times.

Widespread research shows that solitary or room confinement can cause serious physiological harm to both adults and youths.

Soler says that youth, whose brains are still developing, are especially vulnerable. He also points out that flaws in the juvenile justice system mostly affect black children.

"Most of the arrests that are made of young people for allegedly committing crimes are made in a limited number of neighborhoods, and those are neighborhoods that are highly populated by African-Americans,” he states. “So, the majority of young people at the detention facility, the majority of young people in the juvenile justice system in Shelby County are African-American."

Last year, state legislators passed HB 2271, also known as the Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2018, which, among other reforms, aims to limit the use of isolation as a tool of punishment for youths in the system.

Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - TN