As a 17-year-old, Michael Kemp says, he felt like a caged animal.
For six months, his world was reduced to the size of a Washington, D.C., jail cell measuring maybe 8 feet by 10 feet.
During much of his time in solitary confinement, he spent 23 hours a day alone in the cell.
“You just like, ‘Man, I feel like an animal in here. I don’t even feel real … where I’m not even a human being,’" Kemp told JJIE. "You don’t feel like a human being."
Kemp, now 24, who was convicted of armed robbery and says he ended up in solitary because he was caught with a makeshift knife, slept on a mat atop a steel bed in the cinder block cell and had little contact with others except by yelling through a crisscross of bars to other inmates.
“In there by yourself, you can go stir crazy because you ain’t got that interaction,” Kemp said. “You supposed to be growing as an individual, but you ain’t growing. You have no human connection with nobody else. You just in a room by yourself.”
Even now, seven years after his stint in solitary as a juvenile, Kemp says psychic scars remain, and he still tends to isolate himself in his home.
“I might go in the bathroom or be sitting in the living room and I be in there for hours, man, just looking in the mirror or just in a room, just like I don’t know why I won’t be active. I just find myself always isolating myself for some reason, man,” said Kemp, a boyish-looking, slim young man who wears his hair in long braids.
“It’s like if you put a grasshopper in a cup and then you place a top on it and it keeps on jumping and it keeps on jumping and it keep on hitting the top, keep on hitting the top, so when you take the top off, the grasshopper not going to jump out the top of the cup because it’s going to be so used to hitting the top of the cup, and it’s like that’s how it is. Sometimes it feels like I’m in jail when I’m not in jail.”
When you think of solitary confinement, perhaps you think of North Vietnamese POW camps like the one where John McCain spent more than five years in captivity or Alcatraz, where the “Birdman” Robert Stroud made solitary famous, or today’s Supermax prisons that house hardened adult criminals.
But in fact, thousands of juveniles also endure solitary confinement each year in the United States, often in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day with little human contact, even though a growing number of experts say the practice causes irreparable psychological and developmental harm to youths.
In April 2012, the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry issued a statement concluding that solitary confinement of juveniles could lead to depression, anxiety and even psychosis and called for an end to the practice. “Due to their developmental vulnerability, juvenile offenders are at particular risk of such adverse reactions,” the AACAP statement said. “Furthermore, the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.”
Juan Méndez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has found that solitary confinement can amount to torture and has urged a ban on solitary confinement of children and people with mental disabilities.
The National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence, commissioned by U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., concluded in its final report in December 2012, “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.” The task force recommended the practice be forbidden. (The task force was co-chaired by Robert L. Listenbee Jr., who is now the administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Listenbee did not respond to requests for comment.)
In his role as OJJDP administrator, Listenbee stated in a July 5, 2013, letter to an American Civil Liberties Union official that “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” which is banned under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Experts say adolescents are particularly vulnerable to psychological harm caused by solitary – sometimes known as room restriction, restricted engagement, segregation, isolation, lockdown or seclusion – because their brains are still developing.
Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. prisons policy and program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which represents 320 religious organizations, said the campaign opposes solitary confinement of juveniles and views it as a form of torture.
“It’s really a moral question first and foremost,” Downton told JJIE. “When you think about if a parent were to lock a child in a closet, let’s say, for an extended amount of time, we would call that child abuse. And yet that’s essentially what we’re doing within our justice system.
“What we know is that isolation does not lead to rehabilitation. It leads to destruction and annihilation, and we believe very firmly as people of faith that this is immoral and that it’s wrong.”
Critics note that solitary – which youths have been subjected to in U.S. juvenile facilities for more than a century – often denies children access to education, mental health treatment, physical activity, and reading and writing material.
Despite widespread concerns about juvenile isolation, however, some correctional officers’ unions and corrections administrators call the practice a necessary option to maintain discipline and ensure the safety and security of facilities.
A November ACLU report calling for a ban on solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities cited four reasons generally given to justify it: to punish children when they break facility rules; to protect a child from other children; to deal with children deemed too disruptive or out of control; and to isolate a child for medical reasons, including having a contagious disease or having expressed a desire to commit suicide.
Speaking of solitary confinement, Craig Brown, chief lobbyist for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which represents correctional officers in the state system, said: “Our feeling was, why ever deprive yourself of a tool? … Corrections is about tradeoffs, and one of the tradeoffs is if you don’t use a tool like this, you disrupt the program for everybody else.”
If the system did not rely on solitary, Brown said: “If you have somebody who is messing things up so other wards who are trying to participate and deal with their issues can’t do it, then what you’ve done is you’ve said, ‘Well, we’re not going to isolate this ward. In exchange we’re going to let him mess up the program for 10 or 15 other guys.’”
Referring to solitary, Brown said, “It’s necessary for programming, it’s necessary for staff safety, it’s for the safety of the other wards – at times.”
California state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, a child psychologist, expresses a decidedly different view.
Yee has proposed a bill that would sharply restrict solitary confinement of youths in state and county juvenile correctional facilities.
Yee, who has treated youngsters in prisons, jails and health systems, told JJIE solitary makes youths more dangerous, more antisocial, more likely to reoffend, more likely to commit suicide and more likely to suffer a lifetime mental illness.
In solitary, Yee said: “Kids become depressed, they become disassociated, they begin to sometimes decompose psychologically. So there’s nothing good that comes out of solitary confinement for the youngster. It’s all bad, and it seems to me that if the [state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] would just simply pick up a book on psychology and read it, they would understand that this is not a good thing for youngsters and not good for our society in general…. Torture doesn’t help anybody at all.”
Under Yee’s bill, solitary confinement could be used only when a juvenile posed an “immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or to the security of the facility, and all other less-restrictive options have been exhausted.” The bill also specifies that a juvenile be held in solitary only for the minimum time necessary to reduce the risk.
Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, which oversees the Division of Juvenile Justice, said state law allows youths to be held up to 23 hours a day in a room in a “behavior treatment unit.” But Sessa said youths have been allowed to leave the rooms an average of six hours a day most of the past year and that youths held in the rooms receive education and counseling.
Of Yee’s measure, Sessa said, “This bill is a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Yee said the department opposed a bill that failed last year that would have restricted solitary confinement of youths in juvenile facilities.
“If [corrections officials] had their way, they’d probably still have torture chambers in the state of California,” Yee said.
New Jersey also has become a focal point in the debate over solitary confinement of juveniles.
In a letter to Kevin Brown, the executive director of the JJC, the petitioners stated, “Solitary confinement is an extreme and inhumane form of punishment that is not evidenced-based, wastes taxpayer money, and jeopardizes public safety; this is especially so when the people being subjected to the punishment are children.”
The JJC, the state agency that oversees juvenile justice in New Jersey, rejected the petition to ban punitive solitary confinement of youths in mid-February.
Sharon Lauchaire, the public information officer for the commission, part of the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, said the JJC would continue discussions with the ACLU about what is known in the state as “room restriction.”
“We have reviewed our use of room restriction in the past and will continue to do so,” Lauchaire told JJIE. “We will be soliciting feedback from the ACLU and other parties on room restriction.”
The denial of the petition came after a $400,000 settlement in a lawsuit over two boys who had been held in solitary in New Jersey for extended periods – one of them, for about six months.
Policies on solitary confinement of juveniles vary widely across the country.
Even critics of juvenile solitary acknowledge youths who are out of control or a threat to themselves or others may need some time alone but say this should be for minutes or hours, not days – and with close adult supervision.
Some states – including Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Oklahoma and West Virginia – have banned or restricted punitive solitary confinement of juveniles. And New York State just banned solitary confinement of juveniles held in state adult facilities.
It’s impossible to say how often U.S. juvenile detention facilities use solitary confinement, as neither states nor the federal government publishes such data and almost no detention facilities make the data available to the public.
Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the ACLU's National Prison Project, estimated that about 70,000 young people are being held at any given time in juvenile facilities nationwide and that in many facilities solitary confinement is “routine.”
In an October letter, the ACLU and numerous other organizations urged Attorney General Holder and OJJDP’s Listenbee to prohibit solitary confinement of youths in federal custody. In addition, more than 40,000 people have signed a petition calling on Holder to ban solitary confinement of juveniles in federal custody.
And on Feb. 28, U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-California, proposed a measure that would ban solitary confinement of youth in federal juvenile facilities.
“Solitary confinement is something that is purely punitive, and it has nothing to do with rehabilitation,” Cárdenas told JJIE.
But despite concerns about the dangers of juvenile solitary expressed by the National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence and by Listenbee, the U.S. government still has not banned the practice in federal detention facilities.
“There’s no prohibition,” Fettig told JJIE. “It’s sort of like, ‘Put your money where your mouth is.’”
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who chaired a Feb. 25 Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement, called on all state and federal facilities to end solitary confinement of juveniles, pregnant women and people with “serious and persistent” mental illness “except under the rarest circumstances.” (Durbin’s office did not respond to requests to clarify what would constitute those “rarest circumstances.”)
“When it comes to solitary confinement, we know children are particularly vulnerable,” Durbin said. “The mental health effects of even short periods of isolation, including depression and risk of suicide, are heightened among youths.”
Supporters of a ban on solitary in juvenile facilities point out that many youths enter the facilities with mental illness and that solitary aggravates it.
“When you subject [juveniles] to extreme isolation and then you expect their behavior to change, well, that’s living in a fantasy world because you’re actually exacerbating whatever pre-existing problem that kid had,” Fettig said. “Subjecting them to solitary confinement isn’t going to turn them into well-socialized adults. It’s going to inflict more harm on them. So it’s actually completely counterproductive to what the system should be doing, and child abuse should not be mandated by the state.
“You literally are locking a child down with nothing to do, with no interaction, for 23, 22, 24 hours a day. In some ways, it’s common sense to look at the denial of education, the denial of drug treatment, the denial of adequate mental health care that exists in solitary confinement, and think to yourself, ‘Well, what’s going be the result for that kid? How could anything positive ever come from such treatment?’ And the answer is, it doesn’t.”
Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, said solitary flies in the face of the rehabilitative goal of the juvenile justice system.
“All the evidence about the effects of isolation are that it is counterproductive to the goals of rehabilitation,” Lubow said, “so I don’t know how you can be doing rehabilitation based on that kind of extreme punishment.”
Fettig points out that the U.S. Supreme Court has cited research on adolescent brain development in ruling against extreme punishment for juveniles, including the death penalty and mandatory sentences of life without parole. The high court has based these rulings in part on research showing that juveniles’ brains are not fully developed, and youths are more susceptible than adults to peer pressure, more impulsive, more likely to take risks, less likely to consider long-term consequences and more amenable to rehabilitation.
The Supreme Court should also ban solitary confinement of juveniles as “extreme punishment,” Fettig suggested.
“That mission in juvenile justice, which is rehabilitation, becomes even more critical in light of the science as well as in light of the top law, the Supreme Court jurisprudence in this country, that has looked at the science and looked at the law and our Constitution,” she said.
“We believe that those theories, that same science and judicial ruling can easily be applied to the most extreme forms of punishment that we see in the juvenile justice system … and that is the use of solitary confinement.”
A ban on solitary is long overdue, in the view of Tanisha Denard.
As a 17-year-old, she spent 2 ½ weeks in solitary at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall outside Los Angeles.
Denard, now 19, told JJIE she ended up at Los Padrinos for a month because she failed to appear for court dates for truancy tickets she received for being late for school and was put in solitary after refusing to socialize or eat. (She graduated from high school in 2011 and now works as a youth organizer for the Youth Justice Coalition, which fights race, gender and class inequality in Los Angeles County’s and California’s juvenile justice systems.)
While in solitary, Denard came out of her cell only to use the bathroom and to shower and had little contact with others and no reading or writing materials.
If she weren’t in solitary, Denard said, she could have been doing homework or something productive that would have helped rehabilitate her instead of languishing in her cell.
Of solitary, Denard said: “It was dehumanizing. It felt like I wasn’t even a person in society. Nobody could see me. I couldn’t see nobody. So it feels like you not even there.”
Thus, like thousands of other children in the United States each year, Tanisha Denard became all but invisible – in the largely hidden world of juvenile solitary confinement.