By Richard Ross
“I was in Isolation – the longest stretch was 80 days.”, said my friend Ronald Franklin, who was held for seven years and released about six weeks ago. His call came the same day as the passage of California SB 124, a bill that finally prevents kids in detention from being held in isolation for punishment. After numerous failures the legislature passed it. Ronald was held in Florida where, as in most states, “iso” is a normal form of discipline.
During a visit last year in Santa Barbara—my hometown—I watched a girl get into a dramatic shouting match with a guard. “I don’t care—I know I’m going to do my 72 anyway. I ain’t afraid of you.” She referred to the default procedure of three days in solitary. The policy around the country can vary. It is usually dealt as 23 hours in a closed cell, without a mattress, books or any diversion. It varies. Often kids are let out for one hour of “large muscle movement.” There are few states where this is law, but it has become customary.
I experienced the mind numbing boredom of 24 hours in an isolation cell in a Midwestern detention center. It was a limited time commitment and experience. It has to drive you crazy. The noise, the concrete walls the color of spit, the smell and the harshness. Yet a few weeks ago Contra Costa County in California passed a county ordinance ending isolation, and the state passed a broader ruling. Are we at a tipping point?
Perhaps there is a caution or a cynicism that warns me, “Will the same people running these places rename isolation to “administrative segregation?” Will there be the same practice under a different name?
Some small part of me believes that I witnessed the nadir of what we do to children who are in our care, and this is another sign of the path to better and more humane treatment of kids.
Take teenagers—who you must look at through the lens of trauma and deprivation—and when they act out lock them in a closet for hours, days or weeks. Who came up with that idea as productive treatment?
Ronald is out. He did his time and is now enrolled in a computer technical school.
“What was that 80 days in iso like Ronald?” The normally loquacious 20-year-old went silent for a long period. “Terrible.” was the terse, concise response. He then repeated, “Terrible.” He couldn’t talk about it further. It had done too much damage.
We have damaged our children and ourselves too much by using this practice.
June 2nd, 2015 is the day that legislature was passed. Now it is critical that administrators of juvenile institutions “buy into” the idea that we can and should do better. The institutions have to be accountable, and there has to be people monitoring behavior of not only the children, but the custodians responsible for them. There will be a formal system in place. But, there also must be the will to understand that this is the current law of the land in California and it is going to be enacted in other states. Although an already sun-parched state, this is a lovely ray of sunshine in California.