Solitary Confinement is Not a Place for Kids

“Being in isolation to me felt like I was on an island all alone, dying a slow death from the inside out.”

This is how one young man describes his time in solitary confinement in a California juvenile detention facility. In solitary confinement in the United States, the detainee is physically and socially isolated by being placed in a small locked room or cell for between 22 - 24 hours a day. Depending on the situation, detainees are held in solitary confinement for a few days, a month, and in rare instances even longer. 

The practice of solitary confinement has long been used as a tool in managing youth in juvenile detention facilities. It is an easy form of punishment that harbors little risk for facilities. However, physical and social isolation has a detrimental effect on youth. Numerous studies have shown that solitary confinement causes and exacerbates psychological harm, physical harm, and developmental harm in detainees of all ages, but even more so in minors. 

The physical and social isolation has such a dramatic impact in juvenile detention because it stunts the development process of children and adolescents. The negative consequences of solitary confinement among adults are well documented - hypersensitivity to stimuli, perceptual distortions and hallucinations, increased anxiety and nervousness, rage and irrational anger, severe and chronic depression, appetite loss and weight loss, apathy, headaches, problems sleeping, confusing thought processes, self-mutilation, lower levels of brain function, and on and on the list goes. These effects are only compounded in children and adolescents.

If the goal of juvenile detention is rehabilitation, than solitary confinement is clearly a destructive practice. For those like Michael Pennington, director of the Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Juvenile Justice Services, working in the system on a daily basis gives them a front row seat to this reality.

 “Obviously our kids come into the system with family issues, drug and alcohol issues, behavioral issues, mental health issues — you name it, it runs the gamut,” he said. “So if kids are put in a position where they’re isolated without staff working with them or processing it, it increases the risk for kids of self-harm or other behaviors and it’s not going to turn out good.” 

Fortunately, over the last few years there has been a movement away from the practice of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities. This culture shift is taking place in states like Massachusetts, one of 10 jurisdictions that has banned punitive solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

In describing the new focus, Peter Forbes, commissioner of Massachusetts Department of Youth Services, said, “It’s a rehabilitative focus in the agency, and we really understand that this is a really important shot every time we get a kid.”

This shift from punishment to rehabilitation is a shift that places the institutional emphasis on the well-being of the youth rather than the convenience of the facility. 

If the goal of juvenile detention is rehabilitation, than solitary confinement is clearly a destructive practice.

While through anecdote, it is clear that solitary confinement in juvenile facilities has been a common practice over the years, it is unclear exactly how pervasive the practice has been or currently is. Neither federal nor most state governments record or publish data related to solitary confinement or other isolation practices in juvenile facilities and very few facilities make this data available.

In order to address the problem of juvenile solitary confinement, more transparency and reporting of data is necessary. As Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, puts it, “You can’t change what you don’t measure. So states that are being successful [in moving away from solitary] are the states that are measuring the use of isolation, then analyzing its use, developing facility-improvement plans to develop steps to reduce the use of isolation.”

The collection and analysis of data is the first step in implementing and enforcing best practices. From there, policies should be put in place to eliminate the use of isolation and solitary confinement in facilities nationwide. The practice is detrimental to youth and the purposes of it can be achieved in less harmful ways.

It is easy to see how this issue is a matter of public justice. Solitary confinement for juveniles is a violation of human dignity and of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishment. The practice has been shown to have clear and detrimental psychological and physical effects on juveniles. The practice is counterproductive to one of the main goals of the juvenile justice system, that of rehabilitation. As citizens, we should require better policy and practice from corrections facilities.

The problem is that before writing this article, I had never thought about the problems with solitary confinement in the juvenile justice system. I didn’t even know such a thing existed to be considered. Through a combination of privilege and choice, I have never had much contact with the juvenile justice system, and I’m sure the same is true for many readers of this site. However, our ignorance of the juvenile justice system and the potential injustices embedded in it stems from a false disassociation from the system and therefore from the injustices.

The criminal justice system, including the juvenile system, is not a separate entity from us. It is created and funded by our tax dollars and maintained for the public benefit – for our benefit. By definition of being a citizen, we are not only participants, but also benefactors of the system. To a degree, the system speaks for us and operates on our behalf. 

When a guard places a child in solitary confinement, they are acting as an extension of the state on behalf of citizens. It is not a guard placing the child in solitary confinement, but the citizenry placing the child in solitary confinement. Our ignorance of injustice does not absolve our responsibility to it. By recognizing that we are implicated in the system as citizens, we must first admit our complicity with injustice and repent. And then because of this knowledge, we must take responsibility to work for justice in the systems. 

The first step in taking responsibility might be educating yourself on how your elected representatives vote on policy effecting the juvenile justice system and letting them know that it is an important issue to you. Taking responsibility could also mean going to a nearby juvenile detention facility and getting to know youth there as well as the guards and facility administration. Injustice thrives in darkness and hiddenness. Whether through these steps or another option, though, we must take responsibility for the injustice around us. Ignorance is not an excuse.

-Andrew Whitworth is a recent graduate of Taylor University and currently a fellow at the Trinity Forum Academy.