Young People in Solitary Confinement

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Author: Nicole Karem

There is no way to imagine what it is like to be in solitary confinement.  People held there, in prisons across the United States, are kept in tiny cells for 22 to 24 hours a day for days, weeks, or months at a time.  They have no one to talk to, nothing to keep their mind occupied, no way to pass the time.  They breathe outside air for maybe one or two hours a day and they are only given a book if they are lucky.  There is nothing to do, day in and day out, but stare at a wall and try to will time to move faster.  It is unimaginable, impossible to wrap one’s mind around and yet, every day, people are locked up like this.  Including children.  

Solitary confinement can have long term, traumatic effects on adults who are subjected to it, but on children, whose brains are still developing, the effects can be even worse.  Solitary confinement can “cause or exacerbate mental health problems.”  Isolation for such long periods of time causes suicidal thoughts and hallucinations, as children try to cope with the experience.  They imagine someone to talk to, they yell, they throw things.  Anything to break up the monotony of the days running together.  Children in solitary confinement have reported having anxiety attacks and insomnia.  Conversely, some sleep 18 hours a day or more.  Some children develop depression.  Some become paranoid.  

Likely as a result of the severe mental and physical toll solitary confinement takes on children, many states have outlawed its use entirely.  Still, 16 states allow its use on children. Federally, it is legal, although in 2016 President Obama banned its use on children in federal prisons.  Scholars have argued that solitary confinement, of both adults and children, should be unconstitutional under the 8th Amendment, which makes cruel and unusual punishment unconstitutional.  

The question of whether the use of solitary confinement is appropriate is not one that is exclusive to the United States, and it has been addressed in international law.  The answer there is resoundingly that solitary confinement is too inhumane to be allowed.  Under the Geneva Convention, solitary confinement is forbidden even in times of conflict.  More specific to the United States, in 2020 a UN human rights expert expressed concern at the country’s use of solitary confinement.  This concern was not specific to the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, but about the practice as a whole.  This expert stated that “this deliberate infliction of severe mental pain or suffering may well amount amount to psychological torture,” and that “prologed or indefinite solitary confinement cannot be regarded as a ‘lawful sanction’ under the Mandela Rules” which are the UN’s minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners.

Not only is the use of solitary confinement on young people detrimental to their mental health, it is also not useful.  People who are placed in solitary confinement while in prison are more likely to commit crime when they return to their communities than those who did not experience it and are more likely to be rearrested after they get out.  They are also more likely to “attempt and die by suicide” than the rest of the prison population.  This is true of populations of young people as well.  While prison officials may believe that the use of solitary confinement is necessary for prison safety, this is not the case. In Colorado, which has reduced its use of solitary confinement significantly, attacks on staff have also fallen.  Other states have also reduced the use of solitary confinement without seeing an increase in violence.  

Solitary confinement is not a necessary, effective, or humane practice.  The goal of the youth legal system should be to help young people who are dealing with circumstances which may lead them to come in contact with it.  Children need access to good education and mental health resources.  They rely on the adults in their lives, whether those adults be guardians or state officials, to provide them those resources.  Young people who live in circumstances beyond their control should not be put in a situation which makes their lives more difficult by the very people who are supposed to protect them.  They should be given resources and socialization, not isolation during the most formative years of their lives.