Inside Calif. juvenile hall, rare glimpse at solitary confinement cells

An inmate sits in an isolation cell at the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall.

Credit: CIR

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – Although solitary confinement for extended periods is considered one of the most psychologically damaging forms of punishment – particularly for teenagers – no one knows how many juveniles are held alone in cells in California.

Neither the state nor the federal government requires juvenile halls to report their use of isolation for minors – and no laws prohibit them from locking down youth for 23 hours a day.

One thing is clear: Even the county considered one of the most progressive in the state sometimes resorts to solitary confinement to control adolescents.

The Center for Investigative Reporting was given a rare glimpse inside juvenile isolation cells at the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall. Considered a model youth detention facility by many juvenile justice experts, Santa Cruz still places youth in 23-hour isolation, sometimes for days on end.

But amid a growing national debate over juvenile solitary confinement, the way Santa Cruz manages its youth population could serve as a guide for lawmakers as they attempt reform in various states.

The cells at Santa Cruz look like what you would find in a prison: gray concrete floors, cinderblock walls, a bunk, a window, a heavy green door and a metal sink-toilet combo.

When isolation is used at the hall, teenagers usually are kept in their own cells for up to 23 hours a day. Guards check on them every 15 minutes, and they can receive visits from nurses, lawyers, pastors and administrators. Officials refer to the practice as room confinement. In extreme cases, inmates can be placed in one of three isolation cells with no windows that sit behind two sets of doors off the main hall. It’s clear by talking with youth here that even a few days alone in a cell can take a toll.

Sitting on a bunk in his 8-by-10-foot cell, one 15-year-old boy described throwing a fit when he thought he was unfairly locked inside for several days.

“I started, like, banging on my wall all day,” he said. “I got all kinds of toilet paper and I covered my light and was throwing up on my walls and making a big old mess.”

Santa Cruz probation officials allowed CIR to interview juvenile inmates on the condition that their names not be revealed.

The boy, who is now 16, has been detained at the hall nine times since April of last year on charges ranging from gun possession to auto theft. His stays lasted between two days and three weeks. This time, he was in room confinement for trying to pick a fight with an inmate from a rival neighborhood.

His mother has had drug problems and doesn’t always have a fixed address, so he couch-surfs a lot. He sometimes has to wear an ankle monitor as a condition of release. Occasionally, he said, life becomes so draining and chaotic and that he violates the monitor on purpose to get back here.

“I kind of feel safe here,” he said. “I come here back and forth, and in a couple weeks, I’ll be back in here.”

The boy was released a week after speaking with CIR and, as he predicted, was back 14 days later. “I’m probably my own worst problem when I’m in here,” he said.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, introduced legislation to ban solitary confinement as a form of punishment for juvenile inmates in California, but the bill appeared to have little chance of passing after Yee was indicted on corruption charges last month. Similar legislation died last year, in part because it had little support from state prison officials and faced opposition from lobbyists for probation and corrections officers unions.

State officials have remained indifferent to reform efforts because, they say, inmates younger than 18 are no longer sent to solitary confinement in California’s three state-run youth prisons, which house mostly juveniles who commit serious crimes.

Bill Sessa, spokesman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that even when young state inmates are locked in their cells after violent incidents, mental health staff interact with them continually throughout the day. Unlike county juvenile halls, the state system operates under a court order that prohibits all forms of isolation.

In some of the state’s 58 counties, which control their own juvenile halls, the lack of state regulation has led to legal action and, in at least one jurisdiction, national headlines.

In Contra Costa County, probation officials are being sued over allegations of placing minors in solitary confinement for months on end and denying them educational services in the process.

According to the suit filed in August, one 13-year-old girl, who arrived at the hall with diagnosed bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was held in isolation for more than 100 days. In a highly unusual move, the federal Department of Justice and Department of Education have filed official statements of interest and requested the right to argue in the case.

As part of a larger investigation into juvenile solitary, CIR spent months requesting access to facilities that hold minors around the country. Rikers Island jail in New York, Cook County jail in Chicago and five county lockups across Florida would not let in reporters.

The refusals are indicative of the secretive nature of isolating juveniles.

Sue Burrell, an attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco, who has sued several jurisdictions over conditions of confinement, said lax regulations have allowed juvenile solitary to be used in most county facilities that hold minors in California.

“Go into any juvenile hall in the state and go to every living unit and see how many kids are locked in their room,” she said. “Ask why, and you’ll get a variety of responses: They’re kicked out of school, they’re on a special program, they’re on suicide watch, they’re on disciplinary confinement. But in fact, there will be a number of kids in any facility in solitary confinement.”

The cells at Santa Cruz have gray concrete floors, cinderblock walls, a bunk, a window, a heavy green door and a sink-toilet combo.

Credit: CIR

Thoughts of grief and loss

Ask the teens in Santa Cruz what they think about when they’re locked in their cells all day and most go straight to the same ideas: grief and loss. One can’t stop thinking about his best friend who was shot dead at 14. Another talks about his grandmother who died. The 15-year-old said that when he’s alone, he thinks of his big brother, who was killed in a drive-by shooting.

“When it comes to my brother, it kind of just makes me go crazy when I’m in here,” he said. “I just get so angry, like I just want to snap on anybody for no reason. And then there’s times where I’m not even angry, I’m just hella sad and I just want to cry all day.”

That scenario is not lost on Fernando Giraldo, Santa Cruz’s chief probation officer, who says reducing the use of isolation is a constant struggle to balance safety and security with the well-being of young inmates.

“We know that's what happens when you isolate people,” he said. “The effect could really be psychosis and really damaging somebody. And we do know that that person, at some point – whether it is the next day or year – will return back to our community and be living with us, and we should care about that person.

“We are not a perfect system,” he added. “If we are a model site for system reform, that's one thing, but we can always do better.”

Case in point: a 17-year-old foster youth who has been in eight homes in the last four years. Brought to the hall multiple times, he was frequently in and out of isolation over a period of 30 days last year after the staff had to repeatedly restrain him for being assaultive.

“I don't think we're meant to be in a cage, but worse, I don't think people are meant to be apart from other people for a really long time,” said the teen, who is now 18. “You think about the past too much or think about how the future is a bummer. But it makes it harder to actually think about planning what you're going to do in the future.”

At a loss for what to do, the staff decided to move the teen from A Unit, where older kids are held, to the younger milieu of B Unit, where friction between inmates tends to be less intense.

“What we were doing wasn’t working,” said Sara Ryan, the hall’s superintendent. “And the thought of him coming back and putting him back in A Unit and having to do more restraints and staff getting hurt, possibly, or him getting hurt or other kids – that’s not good.”

The new setting was a better fit and, with one brief exception, he spent his final months at the hall without having to be isolated or restrained. The staff eventually let him play an electric guitar once a week in a vacant isolation cell where the acoustics were good.

“It is a little bit out of the box,” Ryan said of the move, “but if it worked, why not?”

At the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall, inmates spend most of each day out of their cells, either in school or a barrage of programs and activities that run from afternoon until lights out.

Credit: CIR

Santa Cruz’s model

Data requested by CIR show that since 2011, the average length of stay for a Santa Cruz inmate on room confinement or isolation has been two days, far below the average at many facilities, where minors are sometimes kept in their cells for months, coming out for an hour a day to shower and exercise.

The total number of youth held in room confinement or isolation in Santa Cruz each month ranged from zero to 17.

Inmates in the hall can be held in isolation for a variety of reasons, including fighting, assaulting staff, making serious threats and withdrawing from drug addiction. Data show that at least three-quarters of incidents that could have resulted in isolation since 2011 were handled with interventions that did not include 23-hour lockdown.

In the 1990s, the hall housed 50 to 60 kids at a time in its 42-bed facility. That often meant two kids shared an 8-by-10-foot cell and one would sleep on the floor.

In 1999, Santa Cruz became a model site for The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative with the goals of improving conditions of confinement and eliminating unnecessary incarceration. The probation department all but stopped incarcerating juveniles for minor offenses – unless they had a history of not appearing for court – and began diverting them to home supervision or community rehabilitation programs.

Now, on a given day, the hall houses about 20 young inmates, most with serious charges: murder, assault, robbery, gun possession, gang involvement and sex crimes. Some are serving sentences, while others are waiting for their cases to play out.

“It's not that we have less-serious offenses,” Ryan said. “It's just we found another way to work with our youth.”

Despite the seriousness of their charges, inmates in Santa Cruz spend most of each day out of their cells, either in school or a barrage of programs and activities that run from afternoon until lights out: therapy groups, yoga, football, basketball, violence prevention classes, writing workshops, Bible study, Narcotics Anonymous meetings and cultural history seminars, to name a few. One inmate took weekly piano lessons.

“There are rules in society, so you have to role-model and teach, and you’re not going to teach if you just stick someone in their room and don’t deal with it,” Ryan said.

On average, the ratio of guards to inmates at the hall is 1 to 5. To put that in perspective, Rikers Island jail in New York, which holds hundreds of 16- and 17-year-olds, has in recent years had a ratio of 1 to 50.

The ratio in Santa Cruz allows guards – called group supervisors at the hall – and inmates to form relationships, Ryan said, which lowers the use of isolation by allowing the staff to de-escalate dangerous situations verbally. She said too many facilities maintain an adversarial relationship with inmates because a lack of state regulations makes it easy to isolate kids for any reason.

A guard unlocks an isolation cell at the Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall. Guards check on inmates in these cells every 15 minutes, and the teens can receive visits from nurses, lawyers, pastors and administrators.

Credit: CIR

In California, state regulators inspect juvenile facilities once every two years. They check that kids are getting their state-mandated hour a day outside their cells for exercise but don’t count up the days facilities hold them in solitary confinement.

“If a youth is in their room for 23 hours a day and they give them one hour out, then they’re not breaking any law,” Ryan said. “A kid could be in their room for isolation for an entire year. As long as we gave them that one hour out of large-muscle activity, we’re in compliance.”

Despite calls for an outright ban from a growing number of human rights organizations, including the Jails Action Coalition in New York and the United Nations, Ryan said juvenile facilities need to be able to remove minors in some cases and place them in their rooms away from other inmates when physical safety becomes an issue.

“Without safety and security,” she said, “none of our programs are possible.”

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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