Policy changes could limit room confinement for youth offenders in SF

The head of the Juvenile Probation Department is anticipating upcoming revisions to department policy that will limit the amount of time youth inmates can be isolated in room confinement in San Francisco, Chief Allen Nance said on Tuesday.

The Juvenile Probation Commission is slated to discuss on Wednesday the department’s use of room confinement at the Juvenile Justice Center, which is currently not limited by policy or state law. The possible changes come as Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is pushing legislation that would restrict the isolation of youth offenders in California.

“Long gone are the days of 24- or 36-hour room confinement for a kid,” Nance said. “Even though” the department does use room confinement, “they are not isolated in some dank, dark, dungeon space.”

While some have criticized juvenile detention centers across the nation for using solitary confinement, while referring to it with euphemisms like “room confinement,” Nance said the department will always have a need to confine youths to rooms for the safety of the offender and others at juvenile hall.

Nance said the anticipated policy revisions will ensure the department can “do that in a way that is thoughtful and strategic,” as well as limited.

“It’s important for the public to know that San Francisco Juvenile Probation understands that we have to encourage and support our young people,” he said. “It’s not our job to punish kids for the things that they’ve done but it is our job to impact their behavior so that they don’t engage in it in the future.”

Fred Nelson, a counselor and probation officer at the Juvenile Justice Center, said the department does not use solitary confinement and has guidelines as to when, and for how long, a youth offender can be held in room confinement for.

“Some folks never receive room confinement because they never violate,” Nelson said. But when they are placed in isolation, “It can go anywhere from one hour to four hours.”

Any time spent in room confinement beyond that has to be approved by supervisors before a Disciplinary Review Board and written into an incident report explaining the incident, he said.

Alternatives to isolation

Nance said he has also asked his staff to find other ways than room confinement to respond to youths who misbehave or engage in dangerous conduct to themselves or others.

The changes could include greater levels of oversight with regard to the use of isolation, creating pathways for every kid to reintegrate in communities after incarceration and using merit-based systems to incentivize good behavior in juvenile hall.

By the end of February, the department expects to finish converting the unit at the detention center into a space where well-behaving youth offenders can play ping pong, pool and foosball.

Safety concerns

On Wednesday, the Juvenile Probation Commission is also expected address the safety concerns of counselors who work at the youth detention center.

For several years, juvenile hall staff have asked for duty belts to hold their handcuffs, radios and other needed equipment.

Counselors were given the belts on Monday but are still waiting on new radios that fit in the belts or replacement belt attachments that can hold their current radios, Nelson said.

Juvenile hall staff need the belts because they currently carry radios and handcuffs in their pockets or hands, he said.

“If you’re going to put a detainee in handcuffs, it doesn’t make sense to put the radio on the ground,” Nelson said. “We’ve actually had staff hit with a radio because they’re not secured.”

The new safety equipment, including gloves to use when someone has a cut, has been purchased and will be distributed to counselors in the coming days, Nance said.

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