Imagine you are shut into a windowless room the size of a parking spot and locked up for 23 hours a day. Imagine you have no idea when you’ll get out. Now imagine you are a teenager.
This is the reality of solitary confinement, a cruel but all too usual feature of California juvenile detention. Experts call prolonged solitary confinement a form of torture, noting that it causes rapid deterioration in the mental health of those incarcerated and dramatically increases suicide rates.
California law provides no outside oversight regarding solitary confinement, severely limiting the recourse that incarcerated youths and their families have to challenge its use. We can change that.
First, why does it matter? Aren’t all incarcerated people in solitary confinement a danger to society and to others in the prison system? Isn’t that why they’re in solitary? No, no, and no.
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The truth is, close to half a million of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the U.S. today are awaiting trial. Between 60 percent and 70 percent of those incarcerated in California jails are awaiting trial. That’s right; they haven’t been convicted of anything. And, tragically, this practice unjustly targets people of color and the poor.
Although records are not kept, justice advocates estimate that most of the youths in solitary confinement in California are black and brown. Overwhelmingly, our incarcerated population is poor. Our criminal justice system treats the rich and guilty much better than the poor and innocent.
If our Bill of Rights is for everyone, including people of color and youths, then we need to stand up and put an end to cruel and inhumane treatment of youths. Ending solitary confinement of young people in our state matters.
There is no excuse for delay on critical legislation to prevent youths from being placed in solitary. Gov. Jerry Brown and the members of the Legislature must act with urgency to adopt reforms like those proposed in Senate Bill 124. State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, outlined how significant these changes would be for youths in state custody when the bill was introduced.
SB 124 limits the use of solitary confinement at state and county juvenile correctional facilities, and creates statewide standards that encourage the use of less damaging and more effective disciplinary actions. It allows solitary confinement to be used in juvenile correctional centers only when a young person poses an immediate and substantial risk of harming others or threatening the security of the facility.
And it demands that solitary confinement be used only when less harmful options have been exhausted. The bill also defines solitary confinement, stipulates that a person can only be held in solitary confinement for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk, and requires statewide reporting of the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.
A wide range of organizations and advocates have endorsed SB 124. From the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, from the Children’s Defense Fund-California to the California Public Defenders’ Association. Whether we are motivated by our dedication to the rights of children, our commitment to racial justice or our religious beliefs, surely we can all agree that solitary confinement is an abhorrent way to treat our children.
As followers of Jesus, who taught that God’s way for the world is equal dignity for all people, Christians must remember that Jesus was unjustly imprisoned, tortured and executed. The New Testament tells us “Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” Hebrews 13:3.
California’s youths must no longer be subject to inhumane and unnecessary solitary confinement. California’s youths must be remembered. Let’s put an end to this pointless cruelty and make California a more just and humane state.
The Rev. Beverly Brewster, a former lawyer, is a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the pastor of Sleepy Hollow Presbyterian Church in San Anselmo.