ACLU sees ‘red flag’ in increase in use of solitary confinement for juveniles

Inspector General’s report says hours of confinement of youth in ‘room confinement’ in state facilities increased 32%

By: - December 22, 2023 3:33 pm
YRTC

The Lancaster County Youth Services Center, along with the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center, in Lincoln, were facilities covered in a recent report on juvenile solitary confinement. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — The ACLU of Nebraska says a new report raises a “red flag” about a significant increase in solitary confinement of juveniles in state facilities.

The civil rights organization said that a reported 32% increase in the hours that youths were confined during fiscal year 2022-23 came despite an effort by the State Legislature to reform the practice, which research has shown can psychologically harm youth, and increase the risk of self-harm.

At one facility, the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center for boys in Kearney, the hours that the young people were isolated nearly quadrupled.

“Officials need to act on this now,” said Jason Witmer, a former prison inmate who is now a policy fellow with the ACLU.

“I know firsthand from enduring it myself that no one, particularly youth, should have to face days, weeks or in some cases months alone under confinement,” Witmer said in a press release. “These kids are being harmed in a way that they will carry for life.”

‘Only as a last resort’

Room confinement is most often used when a juvenile represents a danger to others or themselves, for corrective action, to de-escalate a situation and for protection against other juveniles.

The report said there is a “profound difference” between confinement in a state facility and being “grounded” by a parent “in terms of power dynamics and psychological impact.”

 

On Thursday, the Legislature’s inspector general for child welfare, Jennifer Carter, released that office’s annual report on the use of solitary confinement or “room confinement” of juveniles.

Carter said juvenile detention facilities and YRTCs are “struggling” to adhere to a state law that requires room confinement to be used only as a last resort, if other means fail, and for as little time as possible.

The report suggests that the facilities lack the “resources” to otherwise keep youths safe.

“To truly reduce the use of room confinement, the Legislature must better understand the factors driving the safety and security concerns in these facilities,” Carter said in a press release, “and provide the facilities with the resources and tools they need to maintain safety while reducing the reliance on this problematic practice.” 

A spokesman with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the state’s three YRTCs, said Friday that the agency “strictly follows” state statutes in regards to confining juveniles.

“Room confinements are not used unless all other less-restrictive alternatives have been exhausted and the youth poses an immediate risk to other youth, staff, or themselves,” said spokesman Jeff Powell.

Among findings in the report, which covers July 2022 through June 2023:

  • Confinement “incidents” increased by 44%.
  • Total confinement hours rose 32%.
  • The number of youth subject to confinement increased 24%.
  • Confinement hours at the YRTC in Kearney reached 9,010 in fiscal year 2022-23, nearly four times as many as the 2,359 hours reported in fiscal year 2021-22.
  • One youth at the Lancaster County Youth Services Center was confined for at least 13 hours on 129 out of 133 days for safety and security reasons. 
Inspector generals
State legislative ‘inspector generals,’ from left, Doug Koebernick and Jennifer Carter, and State Ombudsman Julie Rogers at an Omaha event earlier this year. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

“Overall, the data clearly indicates a move away from best practices,” the report stated, urging a “stricter adherence” to state law, which requires confinement to be used only as a last resort and in a time-limited manner. 

The report recommends greater oversight of the use of juvenile room confinement, including dedicating specific staff to that task, and providing facilities “the resources necessary” to ensure safety of staff and youth.

The report also noted a need to “balance” the safety of a facility and protecting the well-being of juveniles.

The ACLU said that the increased use of room confinement comes despite a 2020 law, sponsored by then-State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, to severely limit the practice. The law followed a 2016 report by the ACLU called “Growing Up Locked Down” that focused on the use of solitary confinement of juveniles.

YRTC
The Lancaster County Youth Services Center, and the state Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center, are in the same south Lincoln location. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The inspector general’s report covers the state’s three YRTCs, in Kearney, Hastings and Lincoln, as well as juvenile detention facilities in Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy and Madison Counties and the use of solitary confinement in state prisons for those under age 19.

The report noted that because there’s no standard definition of confinement and what data needs to be reported, it was impossible to compare the use of room confinement between different facilities.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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