The 16-year-old won’t tell his mom much about the days he spends locked alone in a room. 

He falls silent when his mother, Richetta Lowman, brings it up over the phone. He shuts down in person after she makes her weekly drive from Omaha through the barbed wire fences of Kearney’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center and asks about it. 

The teenager routinely spends days at a time in solitary confinement, where he’s landed after shoving a staff member, getting into a fistfight with another kid, stealing a water gun.

In early November, Lowman’s son went radio silent. She learned that her son had spent a week in solitary. She fired off a furious email, copying every government official she could think of. 

That day, her son called, excited, to tell her he’d been let out of solitary at the state-run center where kids go after committing a crime.

Later that afternoon, she got a call from a center staffer.

Your son assaulted a staff member, the staffer told Lowman. He’s back in solitary.

More Nebraska children are spending more time locked in solitary confinement, according to a recent report by the state’s Inspector General for Child Welfare. That report suggests that the state-run detention centers and treatment centers may not be following state law meant to discourage the use of solitary for juveniles.

The practice, officially called room confinement, is needed in some cases to keep staff and other children in custody safe, correctional administrators say.  

But solitary is known to have harmful and lasting effects, research shows, sometimes lowering the child’s brain activity while upping the chance he or she becomes chronically depressed and attempts suicide. 

The report, covering July 2022 to June 2023, found: 

  • The number of times room confinement was used spiked 44% compared to the year before
  • A 32% jump in the total number of hours juveniles spent in room confinement
  • A 24% increase in the total number of confined youth. 

Nebraska children also stayed in solitary confinement for longer than 24 hours more times than they had during the previous year, the report said. 

“My initial thought is, are facilities struggling with managing behavior in the populations they’re serving?” said Jennifer Carter, inspector general for child welfare. “And is that why they’re having to use (room confinement) more?” 

When asked about the increases, juvenile detention officials pointed to increases in the number of kids in custody.

At the Douglas County Youth Center, for example, the pandemic led to fewer detained kids. Staffing levels stayed mostly stable. The higher ratio of staff to kids meant more adults present to de-escalate situations. That meant fewer assaults between kids, and less use of room confinement, said Kim Hawekotte, deputy county administrator for juvenile services in Douglas County. This year, the number of detained kids went back up, she said.

“If you don’t compare (room confinement) to the number in detention, then to me, that’s not relevant,” Hawekotte said.  

Room confinement looks a bit different at each facility where kids are held. 

At the YRTC in Kearney, where Lowman’s son is in custody, the boys get taken from open barracks-style housing units to a separate building – Dickson Cottage. They’re put in cinder block rooms. These rooms have a metal combined toilet and sink, a concrete slab with a thin mattress pad and a slat on the door where staff bring food. 

At county juvenile detention centers, which are like jails for kids moving through juvenile court, kids are typically confined to their usual room. There might be a plastic desk bolted to the wall and a chair secured to the floor in addition to a thin mattress and pillow, advocates described. 

Everything must be easy to clean and hard to break. There’s nothing that can be turned into a weapon to harm staff – or the kids themselves. 

The kids might get a book. They might talk to other kids through the vents. There may or may not be a window.

State law says to limit use of room confinement to as short a time as possible. But in extreme cases, kids can be held for weeks at a time. The Inspector General’s Office found one Lancaster County case where a 14-year-old spent 129 out of 133 days in room confinement. 

Years of research have documented the harmful effects of solitary confinement on adults. Because of ongoing brain development, young people are even more vulnerable to its harms, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 

“Oftentimes, young people don’t know how long they’re going to be in isolation for,” said Jenny Lutz, senior staff attorney at the Washington-based Center for Children’s Law and Policy. “They don’t always understand exactly why they’re going in or what they could have done differently…. often, there is a very real fear that I might be in here forever.”

Time in solitary increases the risk of hallucinations, anxiety and nervousness, according to the American Psychological Association. It sparks rage, lack of impulse control and lower levels of brain function. Those who have spent time in solitary report chronic depression, dizziness, nightmares and trouble sleeping. 

"If grown men become psychotic in a matter of days in solitary confinement, imagine what that does to some children," said Shakur Abdullah, senior facilitator for the Nebraska-based Community Justice Center, who spent more than 40 years in Nebraska prisons after being sentenced to life in prison as a teen.  

Among youth, solitary confinement carries a higher risk of suicidal thoughts. Most suicides among incarcerated youth happen in solitary confinement. 

"When you go in there, you usually get twice as upset," said Jason Witmer, a policy fellow at the Nebraska ACLU. "You're kicking the walls, because you have nothing. You're treated as nothing. A lot of times, what you'll hear are the kids yelling…crying sometimes, kicking walls." 

Roscoe Wallace was put into solitary confinement at the Douglas County Youth Center when he was incarcerated as a teen. He didn't know until that moment that he was claustrophobic. 

Now, Wallace works with incarcerated youth and their families through the nonprofit Viable Healing. 

One teen who was placed in solitary told Wallace a guard said to them: If you're going to act like an animal, we're going to treat you like an animal. 

Another told him the seclusion made him so distraught that he threw his own feces at guards through the slat on his cell door. 

"It fosters this feeling that that person is almost not a person," Wallace said. "Our kids should never feel like they don't have value." 

Lowman tries to visit her son in Kearney once a week. Once, visiting after he’d spent a long spell in solitary, she could see tear streaks on his face. 

In November, she opened up Zoom for a family team meeting, part of her son’s mandated treatment plan. 

But her son wasn’t present on the screen. 

He's in solitary, she said staff told her. He can't participate. 

In Nebraska, state law reflects best practices, legal experts and juvenile justice advocates said. But the data shows Nebraska’s youth facilities aren’t always following those best practices, Carter said. 

In 2020, the Nebraska Legislature passed a law setting rules and restrictions for juvenile room confinement. 

Youth are only to be placed in room confinement as a last resort, after all other alternatives are exhausted, and only if they pose an immediate danger to themselves or others. 

They must be confined for the least possible amount of time, and can’t be confined so long that it harms their health. 

Facilities must notify guardians and attorneys of a confinement within one business day. 

Last year, the numbers went in the opposite direction of the 2020 law’s intent.

“That is not what was planned at all,” said former Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, who sponsored the legislation. “This is back to that archaic view of, ‘Let’s put the kids in the cell and throw away the key.’”  

At the Douglas County Youth Center, the number of hours youth spent in room confinement nearly doubled, ballooning from 18,849 to 34,036 hours.  

At the YRTC in Kearney, where Lowman’s son has been since May, the total number of hours nearly quadrupled, going from 2,359 to 9,010 hours. The number of youth put into room confinement only increased by 13 kids in that same time period, from 71 to 84, suggesting that teenagers like Lowman’s son are spending much longer stretches in solitary.  

Facilities cited safety and security as the top reason for using room confinement. But they also say it’s being used for “corrective action.” State law says youth shouldn’t be placed in room confinement as “a punishment or a disciplinary sanction.” 

With 88 incidents related to corrective action, YRTC Kearney was responsible for 72% of documented corrective action-related confinements. 

“I appreciate the transparency in the data reporting,” said Juliet Summers, director of nonprofit Voices for Children “But everyone’s telling on themselves.” 

The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the YRTCs, “strictly follows” state law and “only uses room confinement as a last resort,” said DHHS spokesman Jeff Powell.

The data in the report does come with challenges. Facilities – even those within the same agency – often define room confinement differently. 

For example: At the Lancaster County Youth Services Center, sleeping hours aren’t counted in room confinement reports. Instead, if a youth is confined for consecutive days, that data is logged as individual 13-hour incidents. 

This deflates the number of hours the county documents; and it makes it appear as if 99% of confinements in the county are resolved within 24 hours. 

In reality, the Inspector General report found that one 14-year-old in Lancaster County was subject to 13-hour confinement for 82 consecutive days. After being released for two days, the child went through another 31 consecutive days of confinement. The child was released again for two days, then went back to confinement for 16 more. 

In total, the 14-year-old spent 129 out of 133 days in room confinement. 

Part of that time was reported as protective custody, when confinement is used to protect the young person from other youth. 

It’s still shocking, Lutz said. 

“(They) shouldn’t be stuck in solitary confinement with all the harms that we know come from that because other people are targeting (them),” said the Center for Children’s Law and Policy attorney. “That is completely unacceptable.” 

A consistent interpretation of the law would have to come from the three agencies and boards overseeing juvenile facilities: the Nebraska Department of Corrections, Department of Health and Human Services, and the Jail Standards Board. 

Carter’s office has repeatedly recommended that the trio provide more clarity on how facilities should interpret the law. 

“Among detention facilities, there’s kind of an angst as to how the different facilities track it,” Hawekotte said. “I get a little concerned when people start to compare (counties).”

The Jail Standards Board hasn’t updated juvenile detention standards since 1993.

Oversight offices like the Inspectors General are having a harder time accessing facility documents and data after the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office recently issued an opinion calling their investigative powers into question. This sometimes results in families being left in the dark, too, they say. 

Before that AG opinion, ombudsman employees could visit the YRTCs and speak with young people and staff if they received a complaint, said Julie Rogers, state ombudsman.

In November, Lowman reached out to the State Ombudsman’s Office, asking if someone could check on her son. 

DHHS never replied to the office’s request to see her son in person, Lowman said she was told. 

“Since the AG opinion, we have tried to go to DHHS facilities, but they have said no,” Rogers said. “They would only give us access that the public would have.” 

Lowman’s son once again went into solitary confinement on Jan. 11. He’s been there since. 

He’s been able to call her sporadically, quickly updating his mom in the minutes allowed. 

In their brief phone calls, Lowman tries to lift her son’s spirits, encouraging him to make the right decisions. She talks him through mental exercises he can do to help with self control and to regulate his emotions. 

But he sounds defeated, she said. His morale is low after years of bouncing between juvenile facilities.

Neither Lowman nor her son know when he’ll be let out. 

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.