Juvenile solitary confinement is a poignant indictment of our dependence on incarceration. The practice is pervasive in the United States, despite the fact that it damages our youth and, by causing higher recidivism, harms our society. Many other countries avoid or prohibit juvenile solitary confinement, viewing it as torture.
Disguised under a barrage of euphemisms, including segregation and secure housing, juvenile solitary confinement is pervasive in the United States, but lacks legal definition and practice guidelines. Recent legislation in California sought to restrict juvenile isolation to addressing urgent risks only. Unfortunately this has stalled, but advocates must continue to address the issue. Many states segregate juveniles for protection or punishment, for weeks or even months at a time.
A recent investigation at New York’s Rikers Island established that up to 25 percent of 16-to-18-year-olds were in segregation, of whom 73 percent were mentally ill. Violations, such as verbal abuse or disobeying orders, can prompt confinement 23 hours a day for more than 200 days, spent in a cell smaller than a compact parking space.
Juvenile isolation is not restricted to the U.S. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) recommended setting maximum segregation times in Austria, Cyprus and Germany. They also criticized the lack of support provided in U.K. Intensive Support Units. According to the CPT, any form of isolation jeopardizes children’s physical and mental well-being, and should not exceed three days.
The U.K. does however regulate isolation. Youth correctional facilities are restricted to 14 days and secure training centers to 1 hour. All incidents of isolation trigger notification to the Independent Monitoring Board, who must visit the facility within 72 hours. The England and Wales Youth Justice Board report that youth isolation fails to safeguard young people so should not be used as punishment.
Juvenile solitary confinement may amount to torture, as “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental … intentionally inflicted as punishment” as defined in the Convention Against Torture, to which the U.S. delayed ratification. It breaches the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”It similarly contradicts the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which the U.S. ratified with exclusions, rejecting the term “degrading punishment.”
Solitary confinement causes emotional and psychiatric harm, yet strong personality, emotional control and high cognition, can be protective factors. By subjecting the developing adolescent brain to isolation, we neglect our legal responsibility to serve youths’ best interests.
Social isolation worsens the trauma and mental health issues already prevalent this vulnerable population. It also leads to further withdrawal with negative consequences for reintegration. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder condemns solitary confinement of mentally ill juveniles. These youths have a greater need for treatment than punishment.
Viable alternatives are plentiful. New facilities should consider long-term implications of space that is included (such as programming, visitation and education) and that which is absent. Santa Clara County’s Ranch redesign eliminated their Secure Housing Unit and created a family environment. Recidivism dropped by 21 percent and program violations dropped by 63 percent.
Many European countries prioritize youth welfare, setting the age of criminal responsibility between 14 and 16. In the Netherlands, children can continue with school or work while attending residential night centers. Sweden focuses on close liaison between social services and families, while France favors educational sanctions.
Meanwhile, Germany suspends 70 percent of youth sentences and never tries juveniles as adults. These strategies are reflected in juvenile incarceration rates, which per 100,000 of youth population are as follows: the Netherlands, 51.3; Sweden, 4.1; France, 18.6; Germany, 23.1; England and Wales, 46.8; and the U.S., 336. Incarceration is expensive. While detention centers can cost $200 daily per youth, open residential facilities can cost half this, while community-based supervision, and evening reporting centers can cost less that one-quarter. These alternatives effectively balance youth and public safety needs.
The irreparable damage caused by juvenile solitary confinement is a poor substitute for engaging youths in treatment and community-based detention alternatives. It could be considered as torture, and at the very least is counterintuitive to rehabilitation. If we want our youth to be responsible and humane members of society, our society must treat them responsibly and humanely.
Antonia Cartwright is a Post-Graduate Fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), based in San Francisco. She is experienced in College Lecturing and British Law Enforcement. Antonia completed her MSc in Criminology and Criminal Psychology, and Post-Graduate Certificate in Education, in the U.K., before moving to California.