By Erica Webster
Letters thrown in a urinal.
Standing in the cold at 5 AM.
Locked in solitary confinement for days.
These are some of the disciplinary methods James Anderson remembers correctional officers using at Camp Scobee, a secure juvenile facility in Los Angeles County.
“A lot of this was simple tactics to try and control entire units,” said James, now 22 years old. “I’m sure a lot of it was a lack of training for how to deal with situations.”
But a new California bill (SB 124) introduced by California Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) in January 2015, and co-sponsored by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, seeks to forbid the use of solitary confinement as punishment in juvenile facilities. The bill also prohibits putting young people suffering from mental health disorders in solitary confinement, and limits the use of solitary confinement to the amount of time necessary to address any imminent risk a child might pose, but not to exceed four hours.
As a former gang member growing up in Los Angeles who describes himself as being an extremely violent kid, James experienced the disciplinary methods used in juvenile facilities on and off for five years.
“The entire camp runs off of fear or respect…We are taught from birth as soon as we get into this type of lifestyle that when you’re tested, you should stand up for yourself,” he said.
After a fight with another boy at Camp Scobee, James was locked up in the security housing unit (S.H.U.), otherwise known as solitary confinement, for several consecutive days.
“It doesn’t sound that bad to me, like I think about it and I hear about people being on lock down for six, seven months…I’ve talked to guys who have been in the SHU for three years.”
However, according to many studies, including a policy brief published by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in August 2014, negative psychological effects and decreased levels of brain function were detected in individuals after only seven days in solitary confinement.
“It does something to your psyche,” James said. “There’s such a feeling of frustration and such an intense feeling of not having control of your life.”
Not only has isolation proven to have damaging effects on mental health, but James remembers that release from solitary confinement did not necessarily merit follow-up counseling or therapy treatment by staff at Camp Scobee.
“Currently there’s no requirement for [juvenile facilities] to keep any data on when and how often they use solitary confinement,” said Jennifer Kim, policy director of the Ella Baker Center, co-sponsor of Leno’s bill. “So our bill is trying to make the requirement that they start tracking how often they’re using it so that we can get a sense of one, how often these facilities one are using it and two, making it available to the public.”
James now works for the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a juvenile justice advocacy organization comprised of formerly incarcerated youth. Through ARC, he has spoken across America about criminal justice issues, and in telling his story always points to the experience of having someone care about him as the reason he decided to improve his life, not the fear of isolation or other disciplinary methods used in juvenile facilities. When he was facing a possible 30-year sentence at age 17, James was able to find value in his life through his friendship with a woman he met at his mother’s church.
“When I was 18 and I got in my last altercation, she said, ‘What are you doing with yourself?’ It was such a simple thing, but it changed my life. And realizing she actually loved me for who I was, and realizing that she wasn’t trying to use me because I had nothing left to be used.”
James sees this bill as a good step forward.
“But,” he said, “I believe there’s still a lot of work to be done because solitary confinement in all circumstances should never be used. I say that because there are other facilities and other models that don’t have solitary confinement. They have fights, but they deal with it in a different way. There are alternatives.”
Correction: This article has been edited to correct the time stated in the second sentence.
Erica Webster is a paralegal and former member of the policy team at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. She wrote this story as a student in the Journalism for Social Change Small Private Online Course.