Crime & Justice

LA County Supervisors vote to end solitary confinement for juveniles

The corridor of a juvenile detention center.
The corridor of a juvenile detention center.
Photo by Richard Johnstone via Flickr Creative Commons

Listen to story

Download this story 1MB

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to permanently ban solitary confinement for minors at county juvenile halls and camps.

Now that it's been approved by the Board of Supervisors, solitary confinement must be replaced with new methods by September.

There were three amendments made: There has to be a report back to the Board after 90 days of implementation, they must identify other sources of funds for mental health services including from philanthropic funders and they have to report back on how mental health services will be provided.

Several dozen public speakers addressed Los Angeles County Supervisors on Tuesday, urging the board of supervisors to end solitary confinement for juveniles. 

During the meeting, some grew confrontational …. here’s board member Hilda Solis addressing a former foster care youth, who walked off stage after using an expletive. 

"Please, please, please respect the decorum of the office," Supervisor Hilda Solis said to a former foster care youth who walked off the stage after using an expletive.

Among the speakers was 22-year-old Francisco Martines. He said he endured solitary confinement in L.A. County Juvenile Hall when he was 17 years old and felt like an animal in a cage. 

"Conditions were small concrete dirty room, the walls covered in dirt, dried up spit, the mattress was so ripped up it felt like I was laying down on a concrete or steel bars," Martines said.

"I’m tired of this, and we’re tired of this," said former foster youth Stephanie Serrano, 31. "And there’s a lot of millennials out here that are empowered former foster youth, this is a direct assault on our communities. "

Others encouraged the board to consider staff members’ safety, saying a means to separate children from one another was needed.

The step comes five months after President Barack Obama issued a similar mandate – banning federal prisons from putting young offenders in solitary confinement, which is shown in studies to cause psychological damage and lead to higher recidivism rates.

Officials and former inmates agree that healthier tactics could produce better outcomes for young people imprisoned in the largest juvenile justice system in the U.S.

“It’s like they lock up a little puppy, and it comes out a pitbull,” said Eddie Flores, 20, who spent two months at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles four years ago.

“We would be alone the majority of the time. No books to read. Nothing to write on. Just a mattress to sleep on,” he said. “I kept thinking, ‘What’s the point of changing if I’m just stuck in this room the whole time?’”

Flores recalls being forced into long confinements that often stretched 12, 15, or 21 hours. And he says that being placed in the Special Housing Unit – called “SHU” – often happened to groups of boys after minor transgressions, like talking too much.

“Of course I wanted to talk, I was tired of talking to myself,” he said.

At age 17, Francisco Martines spent six weeks at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey. He says the experience of being locked away for hours had lasting impacts on him – leading him to withdraw from family and friends even after being released.

“I would go in my room and not talk to anyone for hours,” said Martines, now 22 and a student at Santa Monica College. “They treated us like animals. How’d they expect us to act after getting out?”

While L.A. County long ago phased out harsher solitary confinement practices like cages, black boxes, and giving inmates water through straws, L.A. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the county is broadening the definition of confinement in hopes of shifting the county’s model to education-focused instead of punishment-driven.

“Using this archaic model of just throwing people into a room, when we’ve found out this doesn’t work… well, we want to do something else,” said Kuehl, who is co-sponsoring the new ban with Supervisor Hilda Solis.

Ending solitary confinement not only has positive effects on the youth. Kuehl said changing this model saves the county money in the long-run by keeping recidivism down.

“One does save money if young people don’t offend because it’s expensive to keep one in residential incarceration,” she said. “But it’s also the right thing to do in terms of what works with the kids. So it’s a win-win.”

This story has been updated.