Solitary confinement can be psychologically damaging for any inmate, but it is especially perverse when it is used to discipline children and teenagers. At juvenile detention centers and adult prisons and jails across the country, minors are locked in isolated cells for 22 hours or more a day. Solitary confinement is used to punish misbehavior, to protect vulnerable detainees or to isolate someone who may be violent or suicidal. But this practice does more harm than good. It should end.
A major study by the Department of Justice in 2003 showed that more than 15 percent of young people in juvenile facilities, some as young as 10, had been held in solitary. My own research, for Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, suggested that the practice of putting teenagers in solitary was more widespread in adult jails and prisons. A recent Justice Department investigation found that at any given time in 2013 as many as a quarter of adolescents held at New York City’s Rikers Island were in solitary confinement. Dozens had been sentenced to more than three months in solitary. Still others were held longer, for more than six months.
Only six states have laws on the books that prohibit certain forms of isolation in juvenile facilities. No state—nor the federal government—has banned the solitary confinement of teens in adult jails and prisons.
I have interviewed scores of young people about being in solitary. Their stories haunt me. I spoke with girls who told me that the experience brought back traumatic memories of rape and abuse. Other kids talked about losing control of themselves, of banging their heads against the walls of their cell. Many teens spoke in disturbing detail about suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. One girl who spent four months in solitary confinement in a county jail at 16, ostensibly to be protected from adults there, told me that solitary was “a dark place.” Though there were lights in her cell, she said, “It is like being sunk in a hole.” A boy who had been alone for months in a county jail at 15 told me that isolation turned his thoughts to “the death-oriented side of life.”
A recent Justice Department review of suicides in juvenile facilities found that more than half of the minors who had killed themselves had done so in isolation. And in adult jails, department data released this fall identified more than 40 teenagers who had committed suicide since 2000; the suicide rate for minors in adult prisons was twice as high as that for older inmates. A recent study at Rikers Island found that adolescents there were significantly more likely to harm themselves.
A vast majority of children subjected to solitary confinement are in state facilities (where tens of thousands of children are held) and it will be up to each state to initiate reform. States should remove all minors from adult jails and prisons and ban solitary confinement. New York has led the way on the latter by pledging to end solitary for 16- and 17-year-olds held as adults in its prisons and in jail at Rikers Island.
The federal government should also set an example. There are only 65 juveniles currently held by the Department of Justice in facilities across the country, but there are indications that conditions there are also poor. Last year, following a visit to one juvenile prison with a federal contract, the ACLU of Montana reported that, when disciplined, the juvenile prisoners were put into isolated gray and white cells “with frosted windows and doors without windows,” where “they receive one hour of outdoor recreation seven days per week, but their ability to participate in out-of-cell education or other programming ceases.” The ACLU found that juvenile prisoners were sometimes kept in disciplinary isolation for up to 90 days.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. should immediately direct the Bureau of Prisons to outlaw the solitary confinement of juveniles. The federal government already prohibits the detention of juveniles with adults in federal prisons (a rule that states should emulate). Mr. Holder could also direct the bureau to develop new policies to strictly regulate any use of even short periods of isolation.
Mr. Holder could then direct the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to promote these policies as model practices, much like the national guidelines on education in juvenile facilities that Mr. Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced last week.
Young inmates should be managed in a way that promotes their healthy growth and development. Their fundamental rights must be protected. The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently revised its inspection standards, calling for isolation to be used only for children who posed an immediate risk to themselves or others; after other techniques had failed; only for as long as it took for a child to regain control of himself (it should be measured in minutes, not hours or days); and never for longer than four hours or as a punishment. These standards echo statements by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
That the practice is widespread remains a disturbing indicator of how poorly we treat the hundreds of thousands of minors arrested each year in the United States. They are still maturing into adulthood. Solitary confinement can sabotage both their rehabilitation and their growth. It should be banned.
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