Imagine being locked behind a steel door in a room so small you can barely stretch your arms out all the way. All of your meals come in through a narrow slot in the door. On the left side of your tiny cell is a rusted metal bed with a thin, rubber-foam mattress that is spotted with mold. Graffiti is scrawled all over the dirty walls. To your right is a stainless steel toilet-sink combination. The room smells of urine, sweat, and drool. In the cell next to you, you can hear someone screaming. You are caged in this six-by-eight foot concrete box for twenty-three hours a day. The days blend into each other. You cry and scream and yell.
The only thing left to do is go crazy.
For the thousands of teenagers living in solitary confinement in juvenile facilities and adult jails and prisons across the United States, this is too often the sad reality of life. Many young people are forced to live in isolation for days, weeks and at times even months.
Solitary confinement, which is also often referred to as “isolation” or “segregation,” is the practice of physically and socially isolating individuals for twenty-two to twenty-four hours per day and “severely limiting human contact and environmental stimulation of any kind” for one or more days. While housed in solitary confinement, adolescents are often deprived of things such as health and educational services, adequate exercise and programming that is crucial to their growth and development.
Because states are not required to report data on the number of juveniles who are subjected to solitary confinement, it is impossible to estimate exactly how many individuals under the age of eighteen are housed under such conditions. However, available data suggests that the practice is quite pervasive. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency, more than thirty-five percent of the 100,000 youth living in U.S. juvenile detention centers have been “locked up or confined to their rooms with no contact with other residents” and more than fifty-five percent of those youth (over 17,000 adolescents) have been held in isolation for more than twenty-four hours. A 2010 Department of Justice survey of nearly 4,000 juvenile facilities found that twenty-one percent of the surveyed juvenile detention centers used varying degrees of solitary confinement on their residents.
Outside of the juvenile correctional system, more than 95,000 teenagers are held in adult jails and prisons across the United States. The New York City Department of Corrections, one of the largest corrections systems in the country, reported that approximately 14.4 percent of their incarcerated youth between the ages of sixteen and eighteen are placed in solitary confinement. Similarly, Pennsylvania, one of the states with the largest populations of youth being held in adult prisons, reported that ten percent of the young people in their system were held in solitary confinement of some kind.
Solitary confinement can have serious psychological, emotional, and developmental effects on adolescents. Living in isolation is stressful and uncomfortable and because adolescents have fewer psychological coping mechanisms than adults to deal with discomfort, stress and anxiety, the effects can be especially damaging. Placing youth in isolation can exacerbate and even cause mental health problems in teenagers. According to Dr. Bruce Perry, a child psychologist and senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas, the experience of isolation in children can have profound effects on the brain:
Almost all of [the teenagers locked in solitary confinement] start to retreat into their inner world because there’s nowhere else to get stimulation. Some of these kids, without any external relational anchors, start to go crazy….The brain is so used to a variety of sensory input that in the absence of that, over time, they start to hallucinate and get paranoid. You can literally make people crazy by keeping them in solitary.
It is not uncommon for youth living in solitary confinement to experience depression, anxiety, auditory and visual hallucinations, shifting sleep patterns, nightmares, and uncontrollable feelings of anger and rage. Many, particularly those with existing mental health issues, are completely unable to cope with the sense of isolation and abandonment that they feel and often turn to methods of self-harm such as cutting and at times even suicide. According to the Department of Justice, fifty percent of suicides amongst detained teenagers occur when they are held in isolation and sixty percent of the children who commit suicide in detention have a history of being locked up in solitary confinement. Ironically, one of the stated purposes of solitary confinement is to protect inmates from this exact type of behavior.
A high percentage of the youth entering the adult criminal justice system have existing mental illnesses. For example, in 2012 the New York City Department of Corrections reported that forty-eight percent of the youth entering their system had a “diagnosed mental disability.” As the number of operational public mental health facilities in the country continues to drop, jails and prisons are “becoming America’s de facto mental health institutions.” However, correctional staff is often not properly trained to recognize or deal with mental health problems and therefore detained youth are often denied access to the types of services they need to manage their illnesses.
In the international community, the use of solitary confinement on young people is considered torture. The practice is a violation of international law and falls under the definition of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Juan Mendez, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, is one of the many prominent figures in the international human rights community who have spoken out against the use of solitary confinement on young people:
“The Convention on the Rights of the Child (“CRC”) specifically says that solitary confinement for young offenders is prohibited as a matter of international law. And it’s not capricious. It’s because the medical and the psychiatric literature demonstrates that young offenders suffer isolation in very different and much worse forms than adults… For juveniles, it should never be used. For people with mental disabilities, for women who are pregnant or feeding children. And even for people who are completely healthy, it shouldn’t be either prolonged or indefinite...”
The CRC is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history; however, the United States, Somalia, and South Sudan are the only three countries in the world yet to ratify it.
This September, after months of intense media and governmental scrutiny, Riker’s Island Correctional Facility, the second largest jail in the United States, announced that it will end its use of solitary confinement on juveniles. In a detailed report about Rikers Island prepared for the New York City Board of Correction, Dr. James Gillian and Dr. Bandy Lee wrote that the use of prolonged solitary confinement “can only be seen by both inmates and staff as one of the most severe forms of punishment that can be inflicted on human beings short of killing them… [and] should not be imposed upon any inmates in the jail.” Many are hopeful that as the government continues to investigate the use of solitary confinement for incarcerated juveniles in the United States corrections system, there will be a larger push to finally end this practice nationwide.
Senior Editor, Criminal Law Practitioner