Washington state moves to eliminate youth solitary confinement

Studies suggest practice is psychologically damaging, can lead teens to suicide

OLYMPIA — Some state lawmakers hope to ban solitary confinement as a form of punishment in juvenile detention facilities.

“Nationally, there’s a growing consensus that solitary confinement is both unconstitutional and inhumane, and in Washington state, we do not prohibit the use of solitary confinement as punishment,” said the bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Federal Way, during a Senate Human Services, Reentry, and Rehabilitation Committee hearing on Jan. 16.

Senate bill 6112 and its companion bill HB 2277, which was passed out of the House on a 76-20 vote Thursday, would prohibit solitary confinement in Washington state juvenile institutions.

Solitary confinement is defined in the bill as the involuntary removal of someone from the rest of the population for more than 15 minutes as a form of punishment.

“It’s harmful to youth who are still developing and who are still vulnerable,” Wilson said at the Jan. 16 hearing.

“Studies have shown it both to be emotionally and psychologically damaging, and ineffective at improving behavior.”

According to a 2012 report of the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, “confined youth who spend extended periods isolated are among the most likely to attempt or actually commit suicide.”

The report cites a national study that found that 62 percent of suicides in juvenile institutions were committed by those who had previously been in isolation, and half of these suicides were committed while the person was in isolation.

Emily Murphy, representing youth at the Echo Glen rehabilitation facility, testified at a Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing on Monday.

Murphy read a statement she said came from a teen named Denis: “I myself was in solitary confinement for 16 days. That’s 384 hours of being locked in a room, by myself, with the lights off, and nothing but one blanket and the clothes on my back. I started to feel myself getting depressed and feeling hopeless.”

The bill also requires facilities to document instances of a youth being separated from the rest of the youth population and prevents teens who are charged as adults from being held in an adult jail for more than 24 hours, unless there is a court order extending the length of their holding.

James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, expressed concern over the bill’s application to adult jails, and whether reports should be required in the case of a youth being held in an adult jail at the Jan. 16 hearing.

“It is an exception, and it should be an exception, to have a juvenile in an adult jail. We want the bill to treat that as an exception as well,” McMahan said.

“The juvenile will be in solitary confinement the entire time they are in the adult facility because there are no other youth in the facility for them to interact with,” McMahan said.

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This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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