By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska is overusing solitary confinement for juveniles and has no statewide policies or oversight to ensure that the punishment is applied uniformly at different facilities, according to a report released Monday.
The report by the ACLU of Nebraska says some juveniles have been placed in isolation for minor rule violations, such as talking back to staff members, having too many books or refusing to follow directions.
The group also found that the maximum lengths of time in solitary differ by facility, from as little as five days to as many as 90.
Nebraska lawmakers begin a new session on Wednesday, and the ACLU said it plans to present its findings to each senator in a push for statewide reforms.
“Nebraska’s policies truly shock the conscience,” said Danielle Conrad, the ACLU of Nebraska’s executive director.
Conrad said the group doesn’t object to temporary seclusion for safety or security reasons, but that detention centers are keeping juveniles in solitary confinement for too long and without sufficient reason.
Nebraska is so far behind many other states with its practices that it should be considered an outlier, said Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. She said states that eliminated or reduced their use of isolation have seen a decrease in violence against staff and other juveniles.
“If we locked our children in a bathroom overnight or for a week, we’d be accused of child abuse,” Fettig said. “When government does it, it’s called justice.’’
Juveniles in solitary confinement are also more likely to commit suicide or hurt themselves, said Amy Miller, the ACLU of Nebraska’s legal director. According to research published by the Department of Justice, more than 50 percent of all youth suicides in juvenile facilities occurred while young people were isolated alone in their rooms.
National child psychiatry groups have warned that prolonged stays in solitary confinement do more harm than good for juveniles. The report says policymakers should create uniform statewide policies for solitary confinement, and suggests that officials consider banning it altogether. It also calls for more training and limits on when solitary confinement can be used.
“Many young Nebraskans who are presently detained are not public safety threats and could potentially be rehabilitated through much less restrictive means or at the very least should not be subjected to mental anguish during their period of detention,” the report said.
The ACLU report was based on record requests filed with each of the state’s nine juvenile detention centers. Four are run by the state - two by the Department of Correctional Services and two by the Department of Health and Human Services - and five are run by counties.
Dawn-Renee Smith, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said her agency is working with groups including the ACLU to develop rules for restrictive housing. She said the department uses restrictive housing when necessary for youths who were tried and sentenced as adults.
“There are processes in place to ensure a review by the facility warden as well as to provide the individual with a voice to appeal the decision,” Smith said.
Smith said juveniles in restrictive housing can still see into the prison as well as areas outside the facility. The inmates also routinely interact with medical staff and others assigned to that area, she said.
Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Director Tony Green said his agency’s facilities use solitary confinement as a last resort and aim to keep juveniles isolated for less than four hours. Extending solitary confinement beyond four hours requires permission from senior managers, he said.
“Our goal is to further reduce the length of stays in isolation,” Green said.
The ACLU found that even the most lax policies in Nebraska are out of line with what it considers best national practices. At the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Kearney and Geneva, juveniles can spend a maximum of five days in isolation.
At the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility in Douglas County, juveniles can spend up to 90 days in isolation.
Another facility, the Sarpy County Juvenile Justice Center, has no written policies to set a maximum amount of time, according to the report.
The ACLU of Nebraska said several of Nebraska’s neighboring states, including South Dakota, Iowa and Missouri, have policies that limit the use of isolation to five days or less.