The Justice Department took a farsighted step last year when it banned the use of solitary confinement for young people in federal prisons. The decision – based on research showing that isolation promotes mental illness and self-harm – followed the widely publicized suicide of Kalief Browder, a young man who had been unjustly accused of a minor crime and sent to New York’s infamous Rikers Island jail complex, where he spent two traumatic years in solitary confinement.
The Justice Department ban has pushed several states to place new limits on their use of punitive isolation for young people. Federal courts have also started to weigh in, pressing states and counties to roll back extreme isolation measures.
Taken together, these developments show that the country’s attitudes are evolving and that the goal of abolishing punitive isolation for juveniles is now a realistic one.
That the country still has a long way to go is documented in a new
report from the Juvenile Law Center, a legal advocacy organization in
Philadelphia. Among other things, the report shows that solitary
confinement for children is still common, even in states that are trying
to eliminate it, because policies governing isolation are riddled with
In a national survey conducted by the law center, two-thirds of public defenders reported that their juvenile clients had spent time in solitary confinement – ranging from just a few hours to seven months – as a form of punishment, to protect them from other inmates or for administrative reasons.
The defenders reported that their clients were routinely deprived of basic necessities like mattresses, sheets, showers, eating utensils and mental health treatment. Personal belongings like pens, computers or radios are typically prohibited, leaving the young people to pace the confines of a barren cell with only their thoughts for company.
The barbaric conditions of solitary may cause or worsen depression, paranoia and outbursts of anger that often result in even more time in isolation. The report also notes that more than half of suicides in juvenile justice facilities take place when the young person is alone.
The federal courts are increasingly taking issue with this brand of barbarism. Last month, for example, a federal judge in Madison, Wis., required the state to scale back punitive solitary confinement to seven days – from the earlier maximum of 60 – and to also cut back on the use of pepper spray, handcuffs and shackles.
A federal judge in Tennessee issued a similar injunction – aimed at Rutherford County – in March. This summer, the New York Civil Liberties Union and a public defenders group in Syracuse settled a class-action lawsuit with the Onondaga County jail, which agreed to stop putting 16- and 17-year-olds into solitary confinement.
And late last month, Legal Services of Central New York, a public defenders group, sued officials at the Broome County jail for what it described as “dehumanizing” abuses connected to solitary confinement. According to the complaint, juveniles taken to the solitary unit are strip-searched, allowed one hour of exercise per day and permitted showers only every other day. Court documents further assert that children, many of whom suffer from mental disabilities, are regularly held in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, for weeks or even months on end. Furthermore, the suit says, “Juveniles who reach their breaking point and want to kill themselves are stripped naked and put in a ‘suicide cell.’”
The New York State Department of Corrections has already agreed to stop using solitary confinement against juveniles in state prisons. Having concluded that the practice is counterproductive and inhumane, state officials must now prevail on the county officials to take the same approach.