Nebraska built a special hell for children: solitary confinement

Last week, the ACLU of Nebraska issued a report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile centers in Nebraska: “On any given day in Nebraska, juvenile justice facilities routinely subject kids in their care to solitary confinement … For children, who are still developing and more vulnerable to irreparable harm, the risks of solitary are magnified – protracted isolation and solitary confinement can be permanently damaging, especially for those with mental illness. It is time to scrutinize the use of solitary confinement on children. Nebraska should strictly limit and uniformly regulate isolation practices.” This report builds on year after year of reports on the epidemic of juvenile solitary confinement across the country.

As the county sinks, so sinks Nebraska. Actually, Nebraska is leading the race to the bottom, since the state boasts the third highest per capita number of youth in juvenile facilities. Furthermore, 55% of the juvenile “residents” are youth of color, while only 20% of Nebraska’s youth are youth of color.

Children across the state are sent into solitary for days, weeks, and sometimes months. Often the “reason” for extended solitary confinement is a minor infraction. Often it’s the child’s “attitude.” Who puts a child into isolation for 90 days for having too many books? In Nebraska, quite a few would … and do.

Nebraska has nine juvenile detention centers. Two are run by the Department of Health and Human Services; two are run by the Department of Corrections; and five are county facilities. While all have problems, the real crisis is in the Department of Corrections centers and the county facilities. Two of the county facilities don’t even keep records of how long children are kept in solitary; another has no policy governing the use of solitary confinement. It’s not sufficiently important.

What is consistent is inconsistency. From one center to another, a child can be isolated from 90 days to no more than 5. In the two Department of Corrections facilities, where children have been adjudicated as adults, the rule is “The total number of days that an inmate may be placed on restriction, for each convicted offense, shall not exceed 90 calendar days.”

The report highlights the story of Lisa, who was 14 when she was thrown into solitary: “The room had mesh over the window so you couldn’t look outside. It was an empty room with a cement floor, just plain white walls. There was no mat, nothing in there with you, the room was totally stripped bare. When they closed the steel door, I’d hold onto the door jamb, trying to make it impossible for them to shut me in. Ironically (because I was in solitary for self harm), I survived my time alone by just falling back on hurting myself. I’d bite my own cheeks and tongue, banging my head on the wall. Being locked down alone just reinforced the unhealthy beliefs I already had so I heard `You’re a freak, you don’t belong in the world and you don’t belong around other people.’ What are the facilities trying to accomplish? If it is to manage somebody’s behavior so they don’t harm themselves or someone else, it doesn’t work–it just creates more isolation, anger and separation and hopelessness. We need to be cognizant of how many traumatic and difficult, violating experiences these youths have already had. Solitary just re-traumatizes them. Much of what was done to me was out of ignorance, not evil, but I want people to recognize that we can change things for the better.’”

There is no “ignorance”. The widespread torture of children in juvenile centers across Nebraska is public policy. No one is surprised that a state that leads the country in incarceration of children, and in particular of children of color, leads the country in torture of children once they’re `in the system.’ The answer? Close the prisons; take their money and put it in health care, education, recreation, culture, and everything that sustains life, creativity and wellbeing. Another world is necessary.

 

(Infograph Credit: ACLU of Nebraska)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.