For years, Ohio boasted some of the most violent juvenile prisons in America. Kids there, many struggling with mental illness, were routinely abused and harshly punished by staff. They were locked up alone for hours, days, even months a time. But citing new data, the man in charge of that system suggests the state is now becoming a model of juvenile justice reform.
Harvey J. Reed, director of Ohio’s Department of Youth Services (DYS), writes in a September/October article in the journal Corrections Today that the state is turning a corner in its reputation for harsh dealings with young prisoners, especially on the use of solitary confinement.
In just one year, the number of hours kids spent in solitary dropped by 92 percent, from 12,000 to less than 900 this year. Additional records obtained by Fusion also showed a 24 percent decrease in the number of violent incidents in the state’s youth prisons.
From January to August 2015, the Ohio reported 1,025 “substantiated acts of violence,” compared with 1,521 during the same period last year. That number includes all fights and assaults on youth and staff.
Reed makes a strong case against solitary confinement — one that contradicts the “safety concerns” that correctional officials often cite to justify the practice.
“The problem with restrictive housing is that it does not make facilities safer. It does not prevent violence or reduce assaults on staff and youths; instead, as indicated by the department’s data, it actually increases violence.”
Numerous studies and researchers argue that the typical conditions of solitary confinement — 23 hours a day in a space no bigger than a parking spot, with limited human contact and very little to do — constitutes a poor developmental environment for a kid. For a long time, however, Ohio relied heavily on the punishment.
In 2008, DYS was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice and private plaintiffs over the use of “harmful” seclusion at the kids’ prisons. At the time, the department agreed to reform, but very little changed. By 2011, the rate of assaults at Ohio’s juvenile facilities was 48 times greater than in the state’s prison system. That year, minors spent 229,000 hours in solitary confinement; that’s an average of 306 hours per kid. Just last year, DYS was taken back to court over the same issue.
As Fusion’s documentary “Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s Children,” shows, solitary confinement arguably not only leads to more violence, but also puts kids’ mental well-being at risk.
“It was almost to the point it was damaging me. I was almost starting to feel like I had nothing to lose,”said Allen, a 19-year-old young man from Cleveland who spent most of his teenage years locked up in Ohio’s kids prisons. “I was fed up. I was just acting crazy.”
Allen was diagnosed with severe ADHD and a mood disorder when he was inside, but beyond medication, he didn’t get much help. He was punished often. In just one year, Allen spent 313 days in solitary confinement.
From 1998 to 2014, the Department of Youth Services operated what it called “special management units,” a series of disciplinary plans meant to control and improve the behavior of the most difficult kids. The units were structured in three phases; the first one was solitary confinement. If kids followed the rules, they could earn time outside and move to the next phase but, that proved difficult.
“Once they got into that special management unit, the behaviors just continued to escalate,” said Kim Tandy, the lead attorney in the case against DYS. “They became more angry. They became more agitated. If they were mentally-ill, which most were, their symptoms were exacerbated.”
At 14, Austin was one of the youngest kids at the special management units. Like Allen, he struggled to get out.
“You always stressing in the room…there’s no contact with the outside, couldn’t get no family visits. It messes with your head emotionally more than anything,” he said.
Austin said he spent one year and four months in phase one, often dealing with abusive correctional officers.
“They would throw my food on the ground or run in on me when I was sleeping and all kinds of things,” Austin said. “I’ve actually had a staff cut me with a key, and half my ear was hanging off, and all they did was send me to the nurse and said I was fine and gave me some pain medicine… They didn’t get it. It needed stitches, but they didn’t give none for it.”
Austin said he was put in solitary confinement in 2011. During that year, there were at least 1,750 use-of-force incidents at Ohio’s kids prisons, according to the Correctional Institution Inspection Committee, a legislative group that monitors conditions at the state’s juvenile and adult correctional facilities. Kids were put in mechanical restraints in at least 1,025 times.
“It was absolutely humiliating and degrading for those kids,” Tandy said. “They would describe not being able to eat a meal, not being able to physically do school work because they did’t have enough mobility while they were in those shackles. We had to put an end to that, as well.”
Austin said that he was left handcuffed in his room for an entire day more than once. “They would just say that you were threatening staff, so they wouldn’t have to take your handcuffs off.
“These units weren’t protection. They couldn’t handle us, so they would just throw us into a cell and let us be there, ’cause they didn’t wanna deal with us and our problems…They were just locking us away,” Austin said.
After more than seven years of litigation, Ohio has closed five juvenile facilities. The number of kids behind bars has dropped by nearly 70 percent. Last year, the remaining special management units were shut down and DYS agreed to “eventually eliminate the use of solitary confinement.”
Allen was one of the last kids to leave.
“I remember my mother used to tell me, trouble is easy to get into but it’s hard to get out of. The ‘Progress Units’ [the name of a Special Management Unit] taught me that matter of fact. It was easy for me to get there, but it was real hard for me to make it off,” Allen said. “There were times I felt like I was never going home.”
In the article, Reed said the department still uses “temporary restrictive housing whenever a youth poses an immediate threat of harm to self or others,” but addedd DYS has developed alternatives to traditional discipline, including giving kids additional writing assignments, limiting their participation in extracurricular activities, or simply asking them to apologize in front of their peers.
Kim Jump, a DYS spokeswoman, said kids who get involved in a violent incident can no longer be put in solitary confinement for over 24 hours without the superintendent’s authorization.
“The goal is to limit seclusion,” she said. “We return youth to the general population as soon as youth are calm and it is safe to do so.”
Tandy celebrates DYS’s progress but thinks there is still a lot work to do, both at the state and national level.
“There is no law or regulation restricting the use of solitary confinement statewide,” said Tandy. “We need better oversight.”
Ohio is one of 42 states that have no laws restricting solitary confinement for juveniles. Early in October, senators introduced a bipartisan bill that would put limits on its use, but only for the total 33 minors housed in federal prisons. That leaves out nearly 60,000 kids in local institutions.
And for those who experienced solitary confinement first hand, the reforms came way too late.
“My childhood is pretty much lost,” Austin said.
“They didn’t give me a chance. They didn’t work with me. They didn’t send me to counseling. They just locked me up for three years.”