If you haven’t done so, read David Ramsey’s in-depth report on the use of punitive isolation in three facilities overseen by the Division of Youth Services, the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center (AJATC) near Alexander and two youth lockups in Dermott. Ramsey wrote the two-part story for the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.
Few dispute that there are times when a youth in DYS custody needs to be restrained or isolated in order to protect himself or others. But Ramsey’s reporting indicates that the practice has often been used for disciplinary purposes, rather than safety reasons. Sometimes youths are kept confined alone in a room for most of the day. Other times, isolation can stretch for multiple days at a time.
“In one extreme case last year,” Ramsey writes, “a 17-year-old youth at Dermott was confined in isolation for 23- 24 hours per day for a period totaling more than 90 days, according to records examined by Disability Rights Arkansas, an advocacy group that does regular observations at the juvenile lockups. More typically, youths would spend a day or a few days confined, according to DRA observers, let out only to shower and use the bathroom.” (Until January, the Dermott facility was run by a nonprofit called South Arkansas Youth Services, but it was one of several facilities taken over by the state in January, and DYS now administers it directly. The Dermott facility and others will be rebid to private vendors next year.)
Recall that the purpose of DYS is to rehabilitate kids who are adjudicated delinquent. To that end, DYS treatment centers are required to provide “services” to their charges, including education and therapy. Nationally, juvenile justice standards have moved away from using isolation as a disciplinary consequence, in part because it is detrimental to a person’s mental health to lock him in a room alone for hours.
Or as one youth advocate put it in an email to DYS (which was FOIA’d by Ramsey) concerning a youth at AJATC: “Finding a way to effectively engage him is key. Keeping him locked in a room is only adding fuel to his rage.”
There is a disturbing lack of DYS data documenting how often youths are kept in isolation at either facility, but Ramsey’s interviews with youths, two former therapists employed at AJATC and various advocates, suggest that the practice is not uncommon.
There’s also a disturbing lack of formal policy surrounding isolation: DYS developed a draft policy but never promulgated it, and so the agency only has a set of unenforceable guidelines rather than official rules. The Department of Human Services (of which DYS is a part) said it is working on promulgating the policy. DYS officials interviewed by Ramsey acknowledged some of the harsher accounts of isolation that allegedly occurred at Dermott in the past but said things have now changed. “Our bottom line is this: Room confinement should not be done out of anger or simple irritation,” DHS spokesperson Amy Webb told Ramsey. “It should be done out of necessity.”
AJATC (the largest such facility in the state) is run by a private company that contracts with DYS; the agency switched to Nevada-based provider Rite of Passage last year, breaking with the previous contractor, G4S. Between the time Ramsey began researching his story in May and its publication in August, Rite of Passage changed its internal policy to forbid the use of room confinement in response to routine classroom misbehavior. (AJATC was the subject of a previous story by Ramsey earlier this year about the firing of a guard for choking a child.)
Rite of Passage disputed the assertion that isolation is used for punitive reasons. Michael Cantrell, executive director of the southeastern region for Rite of Passage, told Ramsey that “it’s a space that kids can go for an hour, two hours, chill out, relax, get themselves together and get back to class.”
Among the most striking quotes comes from Ron Angel, who was DYS director from 2007 to 2013. Referencing the building on the AJATC campus that contains single cells, Angel told Ramsey,
I should have gone ahead and done away with that concept, because it was prison. … You can quote me on that — if I could go back in time, I would shut that building down. Or remodel it into something that was more of a therapeutic setting. … I don’t think a prison cell is right for young kids, and I never did.