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Nebraska’s youth detention centers are using isolation less — but not Douglas County

December 16, 2018 GMT

Some of Nebraska’s juvenile detention facilities have made significant progress in reducing the use of restrictive housing — isolating individual children — but the practice continues across the state, according to a report released Friday by the Office of the Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare.

The Douglas County Youth Center stands in sharp contrast to its peers for its heavy use of restrictive confinement, the report says.

This is the second annual report by the inspector general on individual segregation of youths in detention.

The report notes wide discrepancies in how facilities report restrictive housing, which makes it difficult, according to the report, to evaluate practices among facilities.

Julie L. Rogers, the inspector general, said she was heartened by the improvements.

“It’s awesome that several of these facilities are taking juvenile room confinement seriously,” she said.

Detention centers are moving away from isolating children as a form of punishment. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry considers the traditional punitive form of solitary confinement to be cruel and unusual punishment.

Current best practices stipulate that youths are to be isolated for the shortest time possible and only when needed to help them calm down after a volatile situation or to protect them from harm.

According to those best practices, restrictive housing is not to be used as punishment, for convenience or as an answer to staff shortages.

[Read more: Man who experienced solitary confinement at age 15 joins movement to limit its use in juvenile justice system ]

Scout Richters, legal and policy counsel at the ACLU of Nebraska, said the report highlights the overuse of restrictive housing.

“Nebraska facilities continue to overuse the practice of solitary confinement to the detriment of our children and our communities,” Richters said. “Solitary confinement can cause extreme psychological, physical and developmental harm, and the dangers are more pronounced for children, whose brains are still developing.

“The use of solitary confinement on our children undermines the rehabilitative goal of the juvenile justice system, leaving kids worse off than when they entered a facility — in turn jeopardizing the safety in our communities. Alternatives to this harmful practice exist and must be adopted here as they have been in other states, because Nebraska children deserve better.”

In general, the report says gang culture, mental illness and lengthy terms of detention are the primary reasons that detention centers have had difficulty reducing the use of restrictive housing.

Still, the report says the juvenile detention centers in Sarpy County, Lancaster County and northeast Nebraska were able to limit restrictive housing to eight hours or less between 97 percent and 100 percent of the time.

At the Douglas County Youth Center, the reverse was the case, according to the report.

More than 90 percent of the time, juveniles in restrictive housing were kept there more than eight hours, the report says.

Brad Alexander, the superintendent of the center, said late Friday afternoon that he hadn’t had a chance to read the report, so he would not comment.

The Douglas County facility was the only one among its peers that did not record a year-to-year improvement in the use of restrictive housing, according to the report.

The report did not address differences in populations — whether the Douglas County facility, which is in the state’s most populous urban area, might have a more difficult population.

[Read more: Official calls ACLU report on Nebraska’s use of juvenile solitary confinement ‘groundbreaking and heartbreaking’ ]

The report provided some statistics on each detention center. The longest period of room confinement for an individual in:

Douglas County was 262.25 hours for assaulting a staff member.Sarpy County was eight hours for assaulting staff.Lancaster County was 13 hours for medical reasons.Northeast Nebraska (Madison) was 14.5 hours for being verbally aggressive toward another juvenile.Omaha-based Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility, the state prison for youths sentenced as adults, was 7,152 hours — 298 days — for an 18-year-old who was in a prison gang.

At the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva, Nebraska, the report noted heavy reliance on restrictive housing for children who attempt suicide or self-harm.

The report notes that the center is not a mental health facility but is receiving a large number of youths with “extremely serious histories of trauma and mental illness.”

Nebraska is not alone in struggling with restrictive housing.

Detention facilities across the U.S. rely on it, the report says, adding that there’s limited research on effective alternatives.

In 2015, the Nebraska Legislature directed the Department of Corrections to work to reduce the use of restrictive housing.

This report covered the period from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018, and examined data from 33 institutions, ranging from mental health and substance abuse centers to the state prison for youths. Seven of those facilities had used restrictive housing at least 10 times during that period.

Overall, the report says, the best way to reduce the use of restrictive housing is a change in culture at a facility, better staff training and changes in policy.