It’s Time to Rethink Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in State Prisons and Jails

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BolsenPresident Obama recently announced a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles being held in the federal prison system, saying it can have “devastating and lasting psychological consequences.” His orders followed a report recently released by the U.S. Justice Department, commissioned to review the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, that found that it is widely overused.

While the steps the president has taken are laudable — including prohibiting federal corrections officials from punishing prisoners with solitary confinement for low-level offenses, limiting the number of days a prisoner can be punished with solitary confinement to 60 days for the first offense rather than 365 days, and banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal facilities — they serve only as a model for policies decided on in state prisons and local jails, where the vast majority of juvenile and adult offenders are being held in solitary confinement. In fact, the president’s reforms will only apply to about 10,000 adults and a handful of juvenile offenders placed in “administrative segregation” or “restrictive housing” cells in federal prisons each year.

The vast majority of the roughly 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the U.S. are in state prisons and jails where solitary confinement for juveniles is much more common, largely due to children being housed in adult detention facilities and the “necessity” of “involuntary protective custody” as a means to ensure their safety. There is very little information about the number of children currently being held in solitary confinement at the state level in the U.S.

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A 2012 Human Rights Watch report explains that: “Youth offenders often spend significant amounts of their time in US prisons isolated from the general population. Such segregation can be an attempt to protect vulnerable youth offenders from the general population, to punish infractions of prison rules, or to manage particular categories of prisoners, such as alleged gang members. Youth offenders typically describe their experience in segregation as a profoundly difficult ordeal.”

Juveniles are 36 times more likely to commit suicide in an adult jail as compared to a juvenile detention facility, and 19 times more likely to commit suicide when in solitary confinement as opposed to confined with the general population, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice.

Juveniles are often held in solitary confinement in local jails before they have been convicted of a crime at the pretrial phase of criminal justice proceedings. This was the case for Kalief Browder, the young man President Obama highlighted in his recent editorial in the Washington Post, who was arrested at age 16 for stealing a backpack but never stood trial. Kalief was held for nearly two years in solitary confinement on Rikers Island before being released in 2013. However, he never recovered from the psychological trauma and committed suicide at age 22.

Solitary confinement generally consists of inmates being kept alone in an 80 square-foot space furnished with a bed, sink, toilet and food delivered through a slot in the door. Individuals who experience prolonged isolation in a small room with sensory deprivation report depression, alienation, withdrawal and difficulty engaging with others after their release.

Research on the effects of extreme isolation on behavior suggests that it has damaging and potentially persistent negative psychological consequences. One study conducted in the 1950s by University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow involved placing rhesus monkeys inside a solitary confinement chamber nicknamed “the pit of despair.” The cell consisted of a chamber shaped like an inverted pyramid with slippery sides, making it impossible to escape. Harlow observed that after two days, “most subjects typically assume a hunched position in a corner of the bottom of the apparatus. One might presume at this point they find their situation hopeless … [isolation led to] profoundly disturbed [behavior], given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.” Most of the monkeys were able to readjust after short periods of isolation, but “twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” Harlow observed.

Numerous organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and others advocate abolishing solitary confinement for juveniles given the existing evidence regarding its effects on the psyche. In a July 2015 article published in The Guardian, “Solitary Confinement Isn’t Punishment It’s Torture,” the author reports that half of all successful suicides in U.S. prisons occur in solitary confinement cells, calling prolonged isolation a “grave human rights abuse for innocent and guilty alike.”

While brief periods of isolation may be necessary in specific instances as a security measure, as these organizations acknowledge, prolonged isolation has the potential to leave a permanent scar on many individuals, especially juveniles.

It is thus time to reconsider the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and jails. President Obama’s actions at the federal level are important but largely symbolic for most of the 100,000 individuals currently being held in isolation. More work must be done to bring awareness to the need for broader criminal justice reform efforts and encourage action at the state and local levels to implement meaningful policy changes.

I am currently teaching a course at Georgia State University on social justice and politics for undergraduate political science majors. Most of the students in my seminar are planning to graduate in May and apply for law school. A group of these students are working together to build an 8 foot by 8 foot solitary confinement cell this semester to display on campus.

The cell is a replica of an exhibit from the Richard Ross Studio in Santa Barbara, California. It includes an audio feature with streaming interviews from juveniles who have been held in isolation. It will be on display from mid-March through May, culminating in a summer workshop in which Professor Ross will be a featured speaker on campus at the Zoukis Summer Workshop at Georgia State University.

We hope the exhibit and summer workshop will promote awareness of the consequences of solitary confinement for juveniles and adults currently serving time in these facilities. It’s time to rethink solitary confinement in state prisons and jails given evidence of its short-term and long-term psychological consequences.

Dr. Toby Bolsen is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University and director of the Zoukis Research Collaborative. His research focuses on political attitudes and behaviors, media and communications, and scholarship on teaching and learning. 

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