Conditions of Confinement

In the U.S. tens of thousands of youth are currently locked up in secure facilities. Too often, these youth are held in facilities where they are subject to physical and emotional abuse that threatens not only their immediate safety, but their long-term well-being. Standard 2.8 Obligation to Investigate and Address Custodial Mistreatment of the National Juvenile Defense Standards provides “[i]f counsel learns that the client has experiences abuse or misconduct by law enforcement, detention officials, or other persons in a custodial facility, with the client’s consent, counsel should document the extent of client’s injuries and take appropriate steps to stop the mistreatment….” As such, it is especially important that juvenile defenders maintain contact with their clients being held in secure custody in order to continue to advocate on their behalf and address any harmful conditions of confinement that may arise.

Photo by Richard Ross:

Photo by Richard Ross:

Highlighted below are common conditions of concern, as well as mechanisms and resources through which defenders and advocates may address such conditions.


Enacted in 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is the first federal civil statute focused specifically on addressing sexual violence in juvenile facilities, jails, prisons, lockups, and other facilities. PREA provided for data collection, technical assistance, early funding to assist states, and periodic reviews of facilities with high and low rates of victimization. Additionally, the Act required the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue standards outlining the steps that facilities must take to address sexual misconduct prevention, detection, and response. On June 20th, 2012, the DOJ officially published the final standards for four types of facilities: juvenile facilities, adult prisons and jails, lockups, and community confinement facilities.

Related to PREA, the Office of Justice Program’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) published a report, in January 2009, based on the National Survey of Youth in Custody, entitled Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth, 2008-2009. The study indicated that more than one in ten youth in state juvenile facilities and large local facilities reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual victimization by staff or youth in the previous 12 months.


In the past few years, the U.S. has witnessed an explosion in the use of solitary confinement—also known as segregation or isolation. According to a report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch called “Growing Up Locked Down,” the practice of isolation can be especially harmful to adolescents, as young people are psychologically unable to handle solitary confinement with the resilience of an adult. And, because they are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow. Solitary confinement can exacerbate, or make more likely, short and long-term mental health problems. The most common deprivation that accompanies solitary confinement, denial of physical exercise, is physically harmful to adolescents’s health and well-being.

The United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Special Litigation Section investigates conditions of confinement in juvenile facilities nationwide. Their website contains a list of complaints, briefs, settlements, court decisions, and other resources from those efforts. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has also released a strong statement calling on states to change their isolation practices, because of the harm it can cause to youth.

In May 2010, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention released a bulletin on conditions of confinement for youth in residential programs entitled Conditions of Confinement: Findings from the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement. The report, which is based on the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, includes statistics on grievance procedures, disciplinary practices, use of restraints, and other topics.

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