U.S. jails around the country subject juveniles under 18 to solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time, stunting their development and exacerbating mental disabilities, according to a new report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch.
A video that accompanies the report notes that children as young as 13 are subject to this treatment, with 22 hours or more a day spent in total physical and social isolation, “usually in a small cell with a solid steel door.” According to the report:
Sometimes there is a window allowing natural light to enter or a view of the world outside cell walls. Sometimes it is possible to communicate by yelling to other inmates, with voices distorted, reverberating against concrete and metal. Occasionally, they get a book or bible, and if they are lucky, study materials. But inside this cramped space, few contours distinguish one hour, one day, week, or one month, from the next.
This bare social and physical existence makes many young people feel doomed and abandoned, or in some cases, suicidal, and can lead to serious physical and emotional consequences. Adolescents in solitary confinement describe cutting themselves with staples or razors, hallucinations, losing control of themselves, or losing touch with reality while isolated. They talk about only being allowed to exercise in small metal cages, alone, a few times a week; about being prevented from going to school or participating in any activity that promotes growth or change. Some say the hardest part is not being able to hug their mother or father.
Solitary confinement is considered cruel when applied even to adult prisoners. But it can have particular long-term impacts on youth, who have an even more difficult time recovering from this traumatic experience during development.
The youths at issue in this report were convicted as adults and placed in adult jails where conventional solitary confinement is practiced, although some media reports suggest that juvenile facilities also have forms of solitary isolation. The placement of juveniles in adult facilities is a recent phenomenon that has grown over the last 30 years, and in these facilities, they are too often subject to treatment like any other adult, without regard to their vulnerability, particular needs, and heightened potential for rehabilitation if their age is taken into account.
While many of the juveniles subject to this punishment were accused or convicted of violent crimes like murder, others were convicted of non-violent offenses like burglary or drug possession. Sometimes they are placed in isolation as punishment; other times it is ostensibly for their own protection from the adults with which they are sharing cells, or as a purported form of treatment for mental health issues. Below are quotes from some of the more than 125 youths interviewed:
“In seg[regation] you either implode or explode; you lose touch with reality, hear voices, hallucinate and think for hours about killing yourself, others or both. The anger and hurt gets so intense that you suspect everyone and trust no one and when someone does something nice for you, you don’t understand it.” – “Douglas C.” Colorado, April 2012.
“I just felt I wanted to die, like there was no way out – I was stressed out. I hung up the first day. I took a sheet and tied it to my light and they came around … The officer when she was doing rounds found me. She was banging on the window – ‘Are you alive? Are you alive?’ I could hear her but I felt like I was going to die. I couldn’t breathe.” – “Luz M.,” New York, April 2012
“Me? I cut myself. I started doing it because it is the only release of my pain. I’d see the blood and I’d be happy … I did it with staples, not razors. … I wanted [the staff] to talk to me. I wanted them to understand what was going on with me.” – “Alyssa E.,” Florida, April 2012.
“If I would describe isolation to another person I would tell them it’s bad. … They say it’s to protect us but I think it puts us in more danger… [H]ow could we be charged as men but be separated from men. It makes no sense. If that’s the case, keep our cases at juvenile if they want to protect us.” – “Charles O.,” Pennsylvania, April 2012.
Just last year, the U.S. Supreme Court again recognized that children are fundamentally different from adults and must be treated differently. As ACLU/Human Rights Watch fellow Ian Kysel explains, juveniles should not be in adult facilities to begin with. But if they are there, it’s hard to justify widespread use of solitary confinement.