Solitary confinement is especially harmful to juveniles and should not be used to punish them

Friday, November 17, 2017
Humans are inherently social animals; we crave community and connection with others. Being deprived of it can anguish even the most independent individuals.
Solitary confinement —the practice of isolating people in closed cells for 22-24 hours a day, virtually free of human contact, for days to decades—violates this fundamental need, causing extreme suffering.
People in solitary confinement descend to a psychological and emotional state that is deep and dark. The “hole,” as solitary is often called, is an apt description.
Even when a person is freed from solitary, its effects may not go away. Research has shown solitary confinement causes serious, long-term harm, which is why courts across the country recognize that it should be used only sparingly, even for adults serving years in prison for violent felonies.
For children, solitary confinement is especially dangerous. Because their brains are still developing, children are highly susceptible to the prolonged psychological stress that comes from being isolated in prisons and jails. This stress can inhibit development of parts of the brain—such as the pre-frontal cortex, which governs impulse control— causing irreparable damage. In other words, children subjected to solitary confinement are forced into a hole so deep they may never be able to climb out.
Recognizing this, courts have concluded that juvenile solitary confinement is torture and impermissible except as necessary to prevent physical harm. In 2016, the Department of Justice ended the practice of allowing the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
At least 21 states have also prohibited the use of solitary confinement to discipline juveniles, and judges in Tennessee (Doe v. Hommrich) and New York (VW v. Conway) have found that solitary confinement of juveniles violates the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
Put simply, solitary is ineffective. There is no evidence solitary confinement improves behavior, and an abundance of evidence that it hurts kids. Recognizing this research, administrators of juvenile corrections facilities recommend changing facility culture and limiting the use of solitary to instances of physical harm.
The law is clear: even when there is a threat of harm, jailers don’t have free reign in their use of solitary.
“(I)nvoking safety and security does not provide corrections officials with carte blanche to deprive incarcerated youth of the guarantees promised by federal law,” the court said in its decision in Conway.
Massachusetts and Maine have already limited their use of solitary for juveniles, and juvenile facilities nationwide are taking steps in this direction. In sharp contrast, Washington lacks any oversight policies regarding the use of solitary confinement by county juvenile detention centers. In the absence of policies constraining this dangerous practice, terrible things have happened.
For example, between 2013 and April 2016, M.D. spent a total of about 75 days locked in a room or in a padded cell with little human interaction or access to his mother, for minor infractions like talking back, leaving a glob of toothpaste on the door to his room, passing notes, spilling water, “being rude,” and cursing. During one 8-day stretch, he was locked in a room that was spattered with food and blood, with a feces-covered grate over a hole in the ground to use for a toilet.
The ACLU-WA filed a lawsuit on behalf of M.D. to stop Grays Harbor County’s pattern and practice of subjecting children to this type of unconstitutional solitary confinement. Under a recently agreed-upon settlement of the lawsuit, the County will change its juvenile detention policy so that it is consistent with the rules of the state juvenile prison system in Washington. The state policy requires that, if involuntary isolation is used at all, it must be only a temporary means to address an immediate threat of harm, escape, or substantial disruption. Additionally, on the rare occasions when isolation is used, the County will ensure improved conditions, including providing a mattress and bedding, access to a toilet and sink hourly, the same meals as other youth in the facility, reading material, and visits.
Regardless of the reasons for their incarceration, youth placed in the care of our state’s juvenile facilities must be treated with dignity and compassion. We are all better off when every young person who enters the juvenile system in Washington has the opportunity to grow, to be rehabilitated, and to reenter society. The use of solitary confinement makes these outcomes unlikely, if not impossible.
In light of what we know about solitary confinement, local jurisdictions should implement policies that prohibit its use as punishment for juveniles. State legislators should also review and reform the policies, or lack thereof, that have allowed the unconscionable lockdown and isolation of children.