Illinois ends solitary confinement for minors

Hands on prison bars
Illinois to Halt Use of Solitary Confinement in Juvy

A federal court signed off last month on a new Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice’s policy, ending the use of solitary confinement in its jails and prisons against minors.

“This is an historic development for juvenile justice in Illinois,” said Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel for the ACLU of Illinois, in a news release. “Under this new Department policy, juvenile solitary confinement will become a relic of the past.”

The practice of solitary confinement consists of inmates being held in individual jail cells, often for as many as 23 hours a day. Nationwide, solitary confinement is disproportionately used against people with mental illness, despite countless research studies showing that the practice exacerbates these symptoms and greatly increases the risk of suicide.

In recent years, many states – including New York, Arizona and Pennsylvania – have curtailed their use of solitary confinement.

The shift in Illinois is the result of a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Illinois, filed in September 2012. After long negotiations, the parties reached a settlement, approved by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, requiring the Department to adopt a new framework.

According to the ACLU’s summary of the new policy (in PDF format), jail staff is barred from from placing minor inmates in solitary confinement as punishment. Instead, solitary confinement is limited to situations where an inmate poses a risk of safety to others or themselves.

Once placed in solitary confinement, jail staff must check on the inmate every hour, to determine if the inmate has regained self control. For each visit after four hours in isolation, and for every two hours thereafter, a qualified mental health professional must accompany jail staff when checking on the inmate.

In addition, all juveniles must be allowed outside of their cells eight hours per day. Ordinary mental health and education services must be provided to all individuals in the facilities, even those in solitary confinement.

“I think there’s a growing recognition that putting children and youth into isolation is not a way to address the problems that these young people have,” Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate in the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times. “If we’re talking about teens, we’re talking about individuals who are still developing, neurologically and socially. Those are tasks that require social interaction.”