A Bill Limiting Youth Solitary Confinement In Florida Failed This Year. Here’s What The Practice Entails

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What sticks most with Catherine Jones is the darkness. At night, when the sun no longer streamed through the small window of her isolation cell, the cockroaches would come out. Alone, tucked away in the corner of her cell, she’d beg the guard outside to keep her lights on through the night. Some would. Some wouldn’t.

This was Jones’ nightly routine for about 11 months in 1999 at the Brevard County Jail. At 13, she was one of the youngest children in the country to be charged with first-degree murder. In Florida’s justice system, Jones and her younger brother pleaded guilty in exchange for an 18-year prison sentence. However, at such a young age, she wasn’t allowed to be around other incarcerated adults.

After 11 months of isolation, she was sent to Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, where she was in confinement for four and half months longer. Guards brought meals to her; recreation time was not allowed and the only education she received was the occasional book someone would drop off to her. She was placed in the juvenile system afterward, but returned to Florida’s prison system at 16, where she continued to be placed in confinement.

Florida continues its practice of isolation in all levels of institutionalization — both in adult prisons and in juvenile detention centers. What it’s called, how it’s practiced and for how long it’s practiced changes in adult prison versus juvenile detention centers.  

There are those in Florida who seek to change the use of solitary confinement on children.

House Bill 377, sponsored in 2021 by Rep. Geraldine Thompson, sought to prohibit the Department of Corrections or local governments from placing youth prisoners in solitary confinement. The bill and its Senate companion officially died at the end of the 2021 legislative session in April. It also would have provided limitations on the duration of cell confinements and more guidelines for documentation if a youth was placed in confinement.

There have been other bills of its kind. HB 377 came after bill attempts from 2019 and 2020 that would have accomplished the same goal. For now, the only oversight for confinement lies within the institutions that utilize the practice.

Scientific study has shown that solitary confinement, where a person is placed alone in a cell, has no reformative value. While Florida’s Department of Corrections does not mention or promote reformation in its mission statement, Florida’s department of juvenile justice does, citing “prevention,” “intervention” and “treatment” as a way to “turn around the lives of troubled youth.”  

Studies show just a limited amount of time in isolation degrades a person’s mental health, especially in youths. And because data show minority youth are confined in solitary at higher rates than their white peers, the practice does not have a proportional effect across the population.

“Adolescence is the time period, the developmental period where social skills… people’s ability to converse with and interact with other people… are in the most critical stage,” said Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California. “When you place an adolescent or juvenile in an environment where [they’re] not allowed to normally or meaningfully interact with people, not allowed to normally or meaningfully touch another person or receive touch from another person, you essentially freeze their developmental process.”

At 14, Jones said she could no longer be around large groups of people, she’d grown so accustomed to being alone. She would purposely disrespect officers or get into fights. Jones said in prison she’d be in isolation for at least 15 days, but more often months. The DOC has no limit on the amount of time a person could be in isolation for. Any inmate in what the DOC calls “disciplinary confinement” must be evaluated by a mental health professional after the first 30 days. After 60 days, an inmate is evaluated by the Institutional Classification Team, a team made up of the prison warden, assistant warden, supervisors and other prison officials, to see if a person should continue their stay in behavioral confinement. Paolo Annino, the director of Florida State University’s Public Interest Law Center and director of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic, has clients in prison who have been in isolation from months to years. 

After some time spent in prison, documents obtained by FLORIDA Today showed instances of abuse toward Jones and her brother. Typically, children with mental health issues or instances of abuse are more likely to be incarcerated. And those with mental illness, are more likely to be placed in isolation while incarcerated. 

Haney said that kids with mental health and emotional problems have a more difficult time abiding by the rules and regulations of institutions. They’re often singled out by authorities. 

“If resorting to solitary confinement or isolation is the way that punishment is administered… then these kids with pre-existing mental health problems are more likely to end up in solitary confinement,” Haney said. “Where they are much more at risk of having their mental health problems worsen, rather than improve.” 

The use of behavioral confinement in Florida

The leaders of Florida’s juvenile system, where isolation is practiced, have heard this before. In 2011, the Justice Department of Civil Rights Division investigated two of Florida’s juvenile facilities: the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and the Jackson Juvenile Offender Center. Both institutions no longer exist.

Within its investigation, the Justice Department cited the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, a national non-profit organization aimed at improving state and local juvenile systems. The council stated, “isolations should be avoided and only used for a brief period where it is required… Isolation should not be used as a matter of course and should only be used as a last resort, should be carefully reviewed, and used only for a limited duration.”

Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice continues to use what it calls “behavioral confinement” in its 21 state-run detention centers. It does not use them in its residential facilities.

Florida detention centers hold youths awaiting their court dates or those who are waiting to be placed in residential facilities. Residential facilities house youths that have been court ordered to stay in the care of the department after a conviction.

The department puts children into confinement in its detention centers but does not after those same children have had their criminal charges resolved.

Andrea Costello, the director of the Institutional Legal Services Project at Florida Legal Services, questions the departments’ practice of isolation in detention centers, but not in residential facilities.

“Why do you do it this way over here, and not over here, when it’s the same children?” she said.

It shows a conscious decision on the department’s part, Costello said, to not change how it uses isolation.

Costello is lead counsel in a lawsuit against the department in G.H. v. Tamayo, filed in 2019. The case seeks to end the use of solitary confinement, or isolation, in Florida’s juvenile detention facilities. A jury trial in the case is set for July 2022. Currently, the judge is considering arguments through May concerning whether the case can be used to consider the treatment of juveniles broadly in Florida’s detention centers. 

The lawsuit cites three children, all of whom the department placed in isolation repeatedly. G.H., the main child named in the case, wrapped his pants around his neck after repeatedly spending time in isolation at the Volusia Regional Juvenile Detention Center.

The department can hold a child in a Florida detention center in confinement beyond 24 hours, but a regional director must sign off on the confinement. However, there is no limit to the number of times a detention center can place a child in isolation.

“Most juvenile systems have time limits on the amount of time that a young person can be retained in [isolated] confinement,” Haney said. “But oftentimes, the intent of those regulations is circumvented when a system takes… that young person out of solitary confinement briefly, and then puts them back in again.”

Exposing a child to multiple instances of isolation can still be dangerous, Haney said, noting that isolation is dangerous to anyone, but especially for children.

The department has regulations in place, under section 3.03 of its facility operating procedures, for how a detention center must treat a child placed in behavioral confinement. Juveniles must receive three full meals, access to medical and mental health care, proper hygiene and educational materials. A supervisor must approve a case of confinement within two hours and continue to re-review the child in confinement every three hours in-person.

A detention center can hold children in confinement beyond 24 hours if the youth is seen as a threat to the safety of others or security, but a regional director must conduct a review and approve the continued confinement. 

Each year the department performs an annual compliance report by the Bureau of Monitoring and Quality Improvement. From 2018 to 2020, 10 out of the 21 detention center confinement reports, just under half, outlined instances where the government did not comply with its own rules. 

A majority of these limited or failed compliances are from 2018. In 2020, the reports cited only Brevard, Leon and Orange Regional Juvenile Detention Centers with a failed or limited compliance concerning confinement over or under 24 hours, however six of the 21 reports are not yet available.

In the failed or limited reports, many of them included examples of late or non-existent checks by superintendents, some outlined no contact to a supervisor for continued confinement over 24 hours, some reported no evidence of educational materials provided and some reported a lack of mental health checks by a professional. In a few instances, confinements lasted past 72 hours, and there was no hearing to approve this move, something the department requires.

In the original 2018 review of the Pinellas Regional Juvenile Detention Center by the Bureau of Monitoring and Quality Improvement, the average length of confinement over 24 hours was 46 hours. When reviewing a juvenile detention center the bureau will take a sample size of incidents, in this case nine confinement reports were reviewed. Among those reports, the children were in confinement from a range of 25.67 hours to 79.20 hours. Only five of the nine reports documented an approval from a regional director for an extended confinement over 24 hours. Each of the three-hour checks for the nine youths had at least one instance of lack of supervision, equalling 10 lapses in supervision. According to the report, the lapses ranged from 11 minutes to over three hours without a three-hour check-in.

In another 2018 report, this one at the Brevard Regional Juvenile Detention Center, the bureau reviewed 10 confinement reports that were over 24 hours for their sample size. Of those 10 reports, three lasted beyond 48 hours, but none had an approval from the regional director for this extension. One of these three lasted beyond 72 hours, the three-day threshold for confinement. There was no confinement hearing held to allow for a stay beyond three days. The child was in confinement for a total of 86 hours. 

Randy Foster, a previous juvenile detention officer at Brevard Regional Juvenile Detention, said in an interview that there would be a child in confinement every other day. As for educational materials, he said children in isolation did not attend school and detention officers did not provide books for education. Foster was a detention officer for four months in 2016; he’s now a Palm Bay city councilman.

When children were in confinement, they’d bang on the door for the first hour or two and then attempt to sleep. He remembers children banging on the door so hard they’d hurt their legs or arms. They would attempt to flood the commode, the only other object in the isolation cell besides a mat to sleep on.

From his memory, children were in isolation for around 24 hours, and they were ready to get out.

“Trust me, they don’t like being confined,” Foster said. “They want to get out and get into the residential area. It’s a relief.”

In 2018, there were 14,010 children in secure juvenile detention centers. Black males made up 44% of the population while white males made up 23%. However, according to data obtained by Florida Legal Services, Black children made up 77% of confinement instances beyond 24 hours and 67% of confinements under 24 hours — meaning a Black male is still far more likely to be placed in some kind of confinement than children of other races.

Amanda Slama, the director of communications at the department, referred a reporter to the department’s Administrative Rule 63G-2.022 that described confinement as “an immediate, short-term, crisis management strategy. She did not answer specific questions written out in an email about instances of when the department violated its own rules. 

Confinement of Children in Florida’s Prison System

In Florida’s adult prisons – even for juveniles serving sentencing as adults – there are no time restrictions on how long or how often prisoners can be confined alone. 

Date based on public records requests obtained by Florida State University’s Public Interest Law Center, estimates that on any given day 26% of children in the DOC are in confinement. This data is based off of public records requests asking for instances of confinement, which were then organized by age. The data is based off of single days, as the DOC does not release the amount of days a person is in confinement.

There are so many instances of isolation in the prison system, that some prisons have to double up their isolation rooms, which means two people will be placed together in confinement. In the 10th month of Jones’ first isolation period another girl was placed in the cell with her. She called it a comfort. 

Warren Williams is currently serving time for a murder conviction, after shooting his father in 2010. He was arrested at 14, and housed in a county jail for a year and half, awaiting trial. Ultimately, Warren accepted a plea deal for 35 and half years, the deal is made up of 20 and half years in prison and 15 years of probation. 

Anne Williams, Warren’s mother says he was transferred to the Northwest Florida Reception Center, a prison in Chipley, Florida. As in the case of Jones, the prison didn’t know where to put a teen at the time, so they placed him in confinement. 

For five weeks his contact with others was extremely limited throughout the day. He would have to yell to have a conversation under the door. He was housed separately from other adults as a safety precaution. Williams was allowed to shower twice a week. 

Warren would try to sleep most of the day to pass time, in the waking hours he would write letters to loved ones. 

After just four months working in the Brevard juvenile detention center, Foster quit because of how the juveniles were treated at the facility.

“I just think that they’re not doing it right,” Foster said. “It could be improved. It’s not a system like the Florida Department of Corrections…it’s probably got a lot of problems because it’s large. But the juvenile system can be fixed, it’s not that big.”

About Michaela Mulligan

Michaela is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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