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Holder condemns 'excessive' solitary confinement on children with disabilities

A teen in solitary confinement at Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles, Ill.
A teen in solitary confinement at Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles, Ill.

Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday condemned the “excessive” use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities across the country, specifically pointing out the harmful effects the practice has on young people who suffer from mental illness.

“Solitary confinement can be dangerous, and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released,” Holder said in a video statement.  “At a minimum, we must work to curb the overreliance on seclusion of youth with disabilities.”

According to a report released by the Justice Department in 2010, more than one-third of juveniles report being locked up on their own or confined to their room without contact with others. More than half of those youths -- 55% -- said they were isolated for longer than 24 hours. The report found that the vast majority -- 87% -- reported confinement for more than two hours.

“This practice is particularly detrimental to young people with disabilities – who are at increased risk under these circumstances of negative effects including self-harm and even suicide,” Holder said.

Earlier this year, the Justice Department sought a temporary restraining order against the Ohio Department of Youth Services following reports that the facility unlawfully isolated children with disability needs. The DOJ accused a facility of placing one boy in seclusion for 1,964 hours over the course of six months. Another young man spent 21 straight days in isolation, adding to the almost 60,000 total hours of seclusion the state imposed on 229 boys with mental health needs in the second half of 2013, the department said.

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division last February also took the “rare but necessary step” of filing a statement of interest after children in Contra Costa County, Calif., were allegedly held in solitary confinement for almost a full day with little to no human interaction, Holder said.

“In some cases,” Holder said, “children were held in small rooms with windows that were barely the width of their own hands.”

“This is, to say the least, excessive. And these episodes are all too common,” he added.

Holder pointed to a national study published by the DOJ that found that more than 50% of the suicides in juvenile facilities occurred while children were isolated in their rooms. More than 60% of those who committed suicide were subjected to isolation at least once before.

Civil liberties groups hailed the attorney general for speaking out publicly on the issue, but said the harmful effects of solitary confinement ripples beyond just the children who suffer from mental illness.

“Children should never be subjected to solitary confinement under any circumstances -- that means all children,” Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU national prison project, told msnbc.

Researchers at Human Rights Watch also point out that while Holder is focusing attention on children trapped in the juvenile detention system, there is also a significant number of youths who are confined to isolation in adult prisons as well.

"Putting children in solitary is harmful," Alba Morales, a criminal justice researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "This is true for all children, not only those who suffer from mental illness. Solitary confinement is excessive in how often it is used, and its excessive in its cruelty. Children should never be put in solitary."