MSW students lobby to stop practice of juvenile solitary confinement

By Rena Malai, News staff

North Koreans used solitary confinement as a way to break down U.S. prisoners of war during the Korean War, broadcast journalist Ted Koppel said recently on “Rock Center with Brian Williams.” Koppel’s report highlighted 17-year-old James Stewart, an incarcerated juvenile who committed suicide after being placed in solitary confinement.

From left, Kevin Trout, Katie Cianci and Sandra Sharma prepare to meet their state legislators.

Isolation was used as psychological torture for soldiers and political dissidents, Koppel said, and “here, I’m talking about kids — it is just a national disgrace.” Williams added that solitary confinement can be a terrifying and soul-crushing experience.

It’s an issue that hits home with NASW student member Katie Cianci, whose brother is in jail for a drug offense. Even before reaching 18 years of age, he has been placed in solitary confinement several times, Cianci said, and it’s a practice done to minors in jails across the country.

“He told me it’s the worst thing any human being can go through and he would never wish it on anyone,” said Cianci, an MSW student at California State University School of Social Work. “He would be locked up in a tiny cell with no human contact, no link to the outside world. It’s sheer hell.”

Cianci’s story reached her classmates in her Urban Policy and Advocacy class at CSU, and what started as an advocacy practice presentation assignment turned into a real lobbying effort. Cianci’s fellow MSW classmates Jamie Biggs, Sandra Sharma and Kevin Trout worked as a group to get legislation introduced in the California Senate to stop the practice of juvenile solitary confinement in jails.

The parameters of solitary confinement vary in prisons from state to state, Trout said, but in general it consists of being locked alone in a 9-by-6 cell for up to 23 hours a day. It’s used as a means of protection and punishment for juveniles incarcerated in an adult prison, but he said it is an inhumane method that makes the problem worse.

“Humans are social beings and they need to be connected,” said Trout, an NASW student member.  “Constant isolation has adverse effects on mental health in healthy people. So you take incarcerated minors with pre-existing mental health issues and put them into solitary confinement, then eventually release them into the world … as a juvenile their brains are still developing. This is an issue that was important to us as a group and it’s important to society as a whole.”

The group researched solitary confinement and looked for a California representative who would take up their cause, said NASW member and class professor Jose Paez.

They learned that state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, had introduced Senate Bill 1363 in 2012, which states that a minor or ward who is detained in, or sentenced to, any juvenile facility, jail or other secure state or local facility shall not be subject to solitary confinement. Although the bill did not pass, the group lobbied Yee’s office to try again.

“They contacted Yee and a couple of other senators, and they made him aware of who they were,” Paez said.

From the May 2013 NASW News. NASW members click here for the full story.

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