Cruel and far too common: WPI fellows lobby to restrict the use of juvenile solitary confinement - Women's Foundation California
Cheavon Brown (left) and AnnaJoy Gillis in front of the Capitol building in Sacramento.

By AnnaJoy Gillis, Intern

Imagine sitting in a cell the size of a parking space. You are all alone and will remain there for days on end, with no human contact or information about how long your punishment will last. Now imagine that you’re 14.

Juvenile solitary confinement is a dark secret of the California criminal justice system.

Lack of reporting makes it impossible to know the full extent or details of its use, but a 2011 audit by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found nearly 250 violations of solitary confinement “guidelines”.

California currently lacks uniform law to regulate or reasonably restrict the use of solitary confinement on juveniles. And that’s where the Women’s Policy Institute (WPI)’s Criminal Justice team comes in: Working with Senator Leland Yee, the six-woman Criminal Justice team has been lobbying in and out of Sacramento for Senate Bill 61.

SB 61 would restrict the use of solitary confinement on juveniles across the state. Among the bill’s provisions is a restriction of solitary confinement use to only circumstances where the youth poses an immediate threat to those around him or her. Forced isolation would become a tool of last resort, rather than arbitrary punishment.

The Criminal Justice fellows decided to focus on juvenile solitary confinement because of its detrimental effects on developing brains. From increased recidivism to jumps in the suicide rates, the effects are severe with long ranging consequences.

Happily, the team can announce a first round of victories. SB 61 has passed the Senate and the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee and is now headed to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. Two weeks ago several members of the team drove up to Sacramento to speak with Assembly members and to prep for the next major hurdle—the Appropriations Committee.

There will be many more legislative visits, phone calls and emails before the session ends. Partnerships will be strengthened and compromises brokered. After over a year of planning and careful lobbying, the WPI fellows are cautious but still hopeful for victory.

As a new intern I was recently whisked along to the state capital and got to witness the remarkable dedication of the women working on keeping this bill alive.

It was during one of the legislative meetings that I saw the driving fusion of personal experience and political passion. Four of us sat around a table trying to convince an important staffer of our bill’s validity. The discussion remained stuck on the differences between adult and juvenile solitary confinement.

After listening to the back and forth on technicalities, Cheavon Brown finally spoke up. In a clear and poignant manner she described her own experiences in solitary confinement and the negative health effects of her young cousin’s time in solitary confinement. Cheavon, who currently works at JusticeNow, is not afraid to share her experiences. It is her past that makes her an advocate for a better future.

SB 61 holds the possibility to meaningfully change the lives of thousands of youth across the state of California. It highlights a cruel and contradictory practice and tries to make it a little less common.

WPI Criminal Justice Team:

Cheauvon Brown, Alba Mercado, Jolene Forman, Tamiko Johnson, Lisa Pederson, and Vonya Quarles

Mentor: Karen Shain

Photo credit: AnnaJoy Gillis

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