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Want safer youth detention centers? Hold fewer in solitary, some states say

Mecklenburg County Sheriff Capt. Jeff Eason oversees daily operations at Jail North. There, some 16- and 17-year-olds are held alone in cells for 23 hours each day, with no visitors, no access to phones and no library books. Eason says jail officers need to be able to separate troublemakers from the general jail population. But critics call that practice torture.
Mecklenburg County Sheriff Capt. Jeff Eason oversees daily operations at Jail North. There, some 16- and 17-year-olds are held alone in cells for 23 hours each day, with no visitors, no access to phones and no library books. Eason says jail officers need to be able to separate troublemakers from the general jail population. But critics call that practice torture. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Some states are seeing a benefit as they move away from the controversial practice of holding youths in solitary confinement: It has made their detention centers safer.

North Carolina recently put an end to solitary for youths in the state prisons. This past summer, the state Department of Public Safety launched an alternative – a Youthful Offender Program that focuses on the education and treatment needs of about 70 inmates younger than 18 who are housed in the state prison system.

But in some county jails – including Jail North in Charlotte, the jail in downtown Raleigh and the High Point Detention Center – 16- and 17-year-olds who violate rules are still held in solitary confinement.

Capt. Jeff Eason, who oversees operations at Jail North, said officers there need to be able to separate disruptive inmates from the general population.

“There’s no way the other … youthful offenders can get the help they need if we focus on this one individual,” Eason said.

The problem with restrictive housing is that it does not make facilities safer.

Harvey Reed, director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services, speaking about why his state is putting fewer youthful offenders in seclusion.

But officials in Ohio, Massachusetts and Oregon have said they believe their youth detention facilities became safer after they abolished or reduced the use of seclusion.

Research has shown that solitary confinement can cause a host of psychiatric problems, including depression, hallucinations and rage. And experts say the effects can be even more pronounced for young people, who tend to have fewer psychological tools to cope with the experience.

From 2014 to 2015, seclusion hours in Ohio’s juvenile correctional facilities were reduced by 89 percent. Violent acts, meanwhile, dropped by 22 percent, according to Harvey Reed, director of the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

In a 2015 article for Corrections Today, Reed noted that youths in solitary have a tendency to want revenge and to act out in anger.

“The problem with restrictive housing is that it does not make facilities safer,” Reed wrote. “It does not prevent violence or reduce assaults on staff and youths; instead, as indicated by the department’s data, it actually increases violence.”

Ames Alexander: 704-358-5060, @amesalex

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