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Kids in isolation: locked away in Dermott

Critics raise concerns about confining kids alone at juvenile facilities. Part two of a two-part series.

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Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas

Editor's note: This is part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.

Around four months ago, Benjamin Knuckles’ 16-year-old son tried to escape from the Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center. As punishment, he was driven up the road to the Dermott Juvenile Correctional Facility, a nearby facility for 18-21-year-olds, and placed alone in a single-cell unit. He remained confined there for more than 24 hours.

“It’s supposed to be a treatment center,” Knuckles said. “As far as I’m concerned, my son is not in treatment. He’s in jail. That’s the bottom line, he’s just locked up. I’m the one who turned him in to the police. I was trying to save my son. I regret it every day. Now all I’ve done is turn him into more of a criminal. He ain’t done nothing but learned to be locked up.”

The two facilities at Dermott are among eight juvenile lockup facilities overseen by the Arkansas Department of Human Services’ Division of Youth Services, all of which are intended to be rehabilitative rather than punitive. Scott Tanner, state juvenile ombudsman at the Arkansas Public Defender Commission, noted the practice in Dermott that Knuckles’ son experienced in a recent letter to DYS director Betty Guhman that expressed concern about the use and oversight of isolation at DYS facilities. Tanner described children being confined at the Correctional Facility in cells for “indeterminate periods with ill-defined supports and services.”

In one extreme case last year, 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.

The practice of confining someone alone to a cell or room has many names — isolation, room confinement, segregation, seclusion, restrictive housing, solitary confinement — and definitions can vary. Tanner’s letter notes the definition of isolation used by a toolkit developed by the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators: “any time a youth is physically and/or socially isolated for punishment or administrative purposes.” Youth advocates say that the use of isolation in juvenile facilities should be strictly limited, arguing that the practice is counterproductive, disrupts education and therapy services that facilities are required to provide, and can potentially be dangerous. According to federal data, more than half of suicides in such facilities occur while youths are isolated alone in a room. “It has a detrimental effect on a youth’s treatment, education, physical health and mental health,” DRA executive director Tom Masseau said.

The two facilities at Dermott, along with five other juvenile lockup facilities, were abruptly turned over to direct state control in January after efforts by the state to contract them out to a new vendor were blocked in the legislature late last year. The governor announced in August that the state would solicit contractors and they would be placed back in private control as soon as next July. The Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center, the eighth and largest facility, is currently run by a for-profit company — Tanner’s letter, as well as emails he sent throughout the summer, also raised concerns about room confinement at that facility. The communications were acquired from the Public Defender Commission by a Freedom of Information Act request; Tanner declined to comment for this story. The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network previously reported on the practice of room confinement at AJATC, which typically occurs in a building described by one youth as “like the prison.”

Since the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network first asked DYS officials about isolation in May, the division has made efforts to streamline practices and standards around room confinement at all facilities, state officials said.

“We can’t deny that things in the past have been done, behaviors and management practices that had we been more involved in the day-to-day running probably wouldn’t have continued,” said DHS spokeswoman Brandi Hinkle. “Since we have taken over seven of the facilities, it’s been very eye-opening.”

According to DRA, the practices they observed at Dermott continued after the DYS took over the facilities. But DYS officials said that the division has established clearer protocols at Dermott over the last few months in order to limit the frequency and duration of isolation. They said that while youths at Dermott may “perhaps” have been confined for days at a time without adequate services previously, that is not the current practice.

The DYS relies on American Correctional Association protocols for the facilities it oversees. ACA standards limit room confinement for juveniles to five days, stating that “the time a juvenile spends in disciplinary confinement is proportionate to the offense committed,” and establish parameters for administrative review. The DYS does not have an official policy on isolation; a policy was drafted more than two years ago, but, despite urging from youth advocates, it has never been promulgated. The lack of an official policy has caused confusion and inconsistent practices at facilities, Masseau said.

Nevertheless, that draft policy — which discourages isolation lasting longer than four hours but leaves open the possibility of confinement lasting up to five days — is used as a set of guidelines by which the DYS expects facilities to abide. Though there is still no timeline to promulgate it, on Aug. 18, Amy Webb, chief communications officer at the DHS, wrote in an email, “DYS is making the [draft policy] standard at all facilities.”

In his letter to Guhman, Tanner called for data tracking — in line with national standards for juvenile justice — to ensure best practices around the use of isolation and enable more intensive monitoring and review. The DYS does not track aggregate data on room confinement and was unable to provide information about how often the practice has been used at Dermott, but DRA observers said it has been fairly common.

The practice of moving kids who commit infractions at the Dermott Treatment Center to the correctional facility in order to confine them in single-cell units there raised an additional red flag, Masseau said: the placement of younger youths at a facility mandated by the state to house 18-21-year-olds. Asked whether this was a concern, Webb wrote, “Determined on a case-by-case basis.”

In some cases, a room where an older resident normally sleeps has been used as a cell to put a younger child in isolation. DRA observers have seen older youths with their bedding dragged into a common area, where they sleep for the duration of the younger child’s stay in isolation. Meanwhile, isolation has also been used for the 18-21-year-old youths at the correctional facility; in that case, they would typically be confined to their regularly assigned rooms.

At one DRA observation this year, several younger children were confined in isolation in rooms at the correctional facility, and the lights in these rooms were turned out in the middle of the day so that the children were confined in darkness. Staffers told DRA observers that the children were napping, but the observers could see them through the slit in the door, staring back at them in the dark, wide awake. Asked about such a practice, Webb said that while it “perhaps” happened in the past, it was not happening now. “We are not OK with that approach,” she said.

Before the DYS takeover in January, the nonprofit South Arkansas Youth Services ran the facilities at Dermott. Last year, one youth was placed into room confinement for a period totaling more than 90 days. The youth, who had a disability, did not receive educational instruction or programming, according to a letter sent by DRA in August 2016. According to logs pulled by DRA, the youth was isolated for 23-24 hours per day; some days he got recreation time out of the cell, some days he did not. In a response letter, South Arkansas Youth Services defended the practice of room confinement and disputed the accuracy of DRA’s information.

“He was identified as being violent,” said Marq Golden, the DYS assistant director for residential programs. “They made several attempts where they tried to move him back and he was still identified as violent. They provided him services [while confined at the correctional facility].”

Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center - ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES
  • Arkansas Department of Human Services
  • Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center

While Masseau said that a situation involving near total isolation over three months was an outlier, DRA staffers both this year and in previous years have observed room confinement at Dermott lasting for significant periods of time. Youths put into isolation would often sleep in the cell overnight, Masseau said, sometimes for multiple nights. “We’ve seen them up there for as little as a few hours, but the usual is going to be between one night and four nights,” he said. “If it happens on a Friday, they almost always keep them over the weekend up there.” Youths given this punishment have typically been in the room the entire time, with little to no services provided, let out only to use the restroom or shower (and not necessarily let out to shower every day).

Webb said that this description of room confinement “perhaps” happened previously, but is not happening currently. The DYS has now implemented an approach, she said, in which staff members at Dermott call on-call DYS staffers at the central office to notify them of the decision to use room confinement.

“Our staff has been told not to simply say OK, but to have a more substantive discussion about this decision to ensure it is not being done out of anger or irritation and to ensure youth are confined for the shortest amount of time possible to address the issue,” Webb said.

Webb said that DYS facilities, including Dermott, should now be following the draft policy in terms of what services are provided to youths who are put in room confinement. Following ACA protocols, the draft policy states, “Residents must be afforded living conditions and privileges as the general population.” Asked specifically about what sorts of education, therapy, recreation or other services youths in room confinement receive at Dermott, the DYS did not provide any additional information.

Room confinement on site has been much rarer at facilities other than AJATC and the two at Dermott, according to DRA observers, likely because most lack highly secure single-cell rooms. However, they may use mechanical restraints in response to major infractions. According to DRA observers, at least one facility, at Lewisville, has placed shackled youths outdoors for hours at a time, regardless of weather, as punishment for severe misbehaviors. Webb said that “placing restraints on youth and placing them outdoors … is unacceptable and that was made very clear to staff back in March. That is one of the things we learned was happening once we took over the day-to-day operations, and it is not an approach or technique that we approve.” Webb added that the DYS prefers alternative de-escalation interventions rather than using mechanical restraints at all, and next month the division will commence training all staff on safer crisis intervention and behavior management techniques.

Facilities may also remove a youth from the site to be temporarily placed for a few days in one of five county-run juvenile detention centers with which the state has agreements — a practice referred to as a “timeout.” In that case, the youth could be confined to a cell at one of the JDCs, which operate under a standard that allows room confinement for up to 23 hours per day if the youth is deemed a safety or security risk. Golden said that JDCs should follow the same expectations that the DYS had for its own facilities in terms of room confinement and noted that the DYS Quality Assurance team does conduct some oversight, but added, “We have agreements with them, but we don’t necessarily tell them exactly what they have to do.”

According to Tanner’s Aug. 23 letter, there were 11 youths housed in JDCs due to behavioral timeouts. The strategy of using JDCs to separate youths who commit behavioral infractions comes with pitfalls, Tanner wrote. “Youth placed in isolation, especially in a county detention center, can be subjected to revocation of privileges such as reduced family visitation and limited access to educational programming and clinical services,” he wrote. “Youth placed in detention centers in Arkansas can also be subject or witness to pepper spray.” Youth subjected to JDC timeouts also tend to end up having longer stays at the DYS treatment centers, Tanner wrote. “All of those identified consequences are counter to the interests of the youth we serve, to the communities to which they will return, and to the taxpayers of Arkansas.”

In a 2015 report, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators advised that “isolating youths … as a consequence for negative behavior undermines the rehabilitative goals of youth corrections.” In his letter, Tanner noted that the CJCA report “summarizes research demonstrating that isolation … actually has negative public safety consequences, does not reduce violence and likely increases recidivism.” In addition to better data tracking, Tanner suggested a number of strategies to reduce the use of isolation, including developing clearer policies for the use and monitoring of the practice, developing alternative behavior management options and responses, and conducting additional training and development for staff toward policies and principles regarding the use of isolation.

In the interim, Tanner wrote, “DYS must improve its monitoring and accountability when youth are removed from the general population.” He proposed that any removal for disciplinary purposes, especially from a school setting, should be approved by the DYS; that each individual case of separation from the general population should be monitored, including the reasons for the removal, its duration and what interventions were attempted; that the division needed to better assess and monitor the conditions of rooms or cells where children were confined in isolation; and that the division needed to analyze data on room confinement to identify patterns and ensure best practices.

“These practices must be governed by strong policy and effective monitoring,” Tanner wrote. “We, as a state, are failing at both.”

In an accompanying email, Tanner wrote that he hoped that “by further examination of these and other issues, DHS will be better positioned in determining what it needs to ask in its upcoming [request for proposal] process” in contracting out the seven facilities currently under direct state control.

“Broadly speaking, running the facilities has taught us an important lesson that we have taken to heart,” Webb said. “Once these go back out on contract, our monitoring needs to be more robust to ensure policies and procedures are being followed. We are committed to doing that.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Find out more at arknews.org.

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