6:16 p.m. PT Feb. 24, 2017
The Oregon Youth Authority would be prevented from using isolation as a punishment under a bill passed Thursday by the Oregon State Senate.
Senate Bill 82, which passed 29-0 on the Senate floor, would establish a state policy prohibiting the Oregon Youth Authority from punishing youth offenders or any other person under the agency’s custody by locking them in solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement is the most extreme form of isolation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, and involves physical and social isolation in a cell for 22 to 24 hours per day.
The ACLU reports solitary confinement can “cause serious psychological, physical, and developmental harm, resulting in persistent mental health problems, or suicide.” Lengthy periods of isolation can be equally traumatizing and result in the same serious risks to health.
These risks are magnified for children with disabilities or histories of trauma and abuse.
“We know that locking any person up in isolation as punishment is harmful to them mentally and emotionally,” said state Sen. James Manning, D-Eugene, who carried the bill on the Senate floor. “These are vulnerable kids, anyway, and then using a punishment technique like that naturally hurts more than it helps.”
The Oregon Youth Authority sponsored the bill. Since 2005, the authority has not used the practice as punishment under its internal policies.
However, Erin Fuimaono, assistant director of Development Services for the youth authority, said a state statute will allow the practice to extend beyond current leadership.
The bill also expands the existing law to include anyone in the custody of the Oregon Youth Authority, not just youth offenders.
Though the bill and youth authority’s policies prohibit the use of isolation for punitive means, isolation can still be used for other reasons.
For instance, if youth are threats to their own safety or to the safety of others at the facility, the authority may place them in isolation so they have the time and quiet space to “re-regulate” and no longer be a threat, said Sarah Evans, a spokesperson for the authority.
She said some youth also choose to put themselves in isolation for brief periods “when they feel they need a quiet and safe space to regain self-control and regulate their emotions away from others.”
Fuimaono said about eight youth are in isolation a day in facilities of about 600 youth. The average length of stay is 26 hours, she said. This includes the time in the isolation room — both sleeping and awake — as well as the time the counselors and staff work with the youth to re-integrate them into the facility’s classes and activities.
She said the facilities focus more on the development of the youth, rather than punitive strategies.
A first reading of the bill on the Oregon House floor is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 27.
For more information, contact the Oregon Youth Authority online at oregon.gov/oya or by calling 503-373-7205.