Congress has enshrined in law an Obama-era executive order banning youth solitary confinement in federal prisons. The reform was one of many included in the First Step Act, which passed the Senate earlier this week and won a bipartisan vote in the House on Thursday.
But even as the legislation waits for President Donald Trump’s signature, youth advocates in Pennsylvania are pushing for the Keystone State to follow suit on confinement standards by limiting the practice to 30 minutes.
“What we’re hoping across Pennsylvania is that we follow the lead the federal government seems to be setting here,” said lawyer Jessica Feierman, from the Juvenile Law Center. “If you’re using solitary confinement it should be for minutes, it should not be for hours. It should definitely not be for weeks, it shouldn’t be for months.”
Pennsylvania currently permits certain teenagers or children to be incarcerated at adult correctional facilities at the state or county level. In extreme cases, like homicides, youths, as young as eleven or ten-years-old, can be detained. All are currently at risk of being subjected to solitary confinement.
“The biggest issue we’ve been hearing about…is young people being held in adult facilities and being held in solitary confinement,” Feierman said. “And we’ve particularly been hearing problems about girls held in solitary confinement, especially in some of the smaller counties.”
Experts largely agree that solitary confinement can have severe mental health impacts, ranging from psychosis to self-harm, and a growing cohort of psychologists have come to regard the prolonged confinement as a form of torture. These effects are more acute for juveniles, who can suffer psychological harm after just hours of confinement, they say.
Feierman said lawmakers in Harrisburg should pass legislation bringing Pennsylvania in line with new federal guidelines.
J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Tom Wolf’s office, declined to say if the governor would back a ban on youth confinement, but described Wolf as a “strong supporter” of the First Step Act.
“Criminal justice reform will be a top priority in his second term,” Abbott said.