In recent years, I have interviewed scores of young people who were held in jails and prisons alone for 22 to 24 hours a day. These children were kept in solitary confinement for days, months and even years. This treatment can be devastating for anyone. But it is particularly dangerous for children and teens, whose brains and bodies are still developing and who are therefore at particular risk of physical and psychological harm. Dozens of young people told me about losing control while in solitary, about harming themselves and even attempting suicide.
What has always disturbed me most about the solitary confinement of children is its connection to self-harm and to death. Indeed, the best research available suggests that solitary confinement is highly-correlated with suicide in prisons, jails and juvenile facilities, and even more so with children and adolescents. Suicide of children is also highly correlated with imprisonment in adult jails and prisons: the Department of Justice has found that the rate in adult prisons is nearly twice that of adults. Children should never be held in adult jails or prisons (a report by the National Academies of Science suggests that, “punishing juveniles as adults is not likely to reduce recidivism and is likely to increase the social costs of crime”). But it is especially perverse that the solitary confinement of children is not banned across the United States. Ending the solitary confinement of children and strictly regulating isolation practices anywhere they are detained promises to save lives. There is an urgent need for reform.
A few years ago, in Florida, I made my way through a series of steel gates and sterile concrete corridors to see Alyssa (her name, like all of the names in this piece, has been changed to protect the safety of those I have interviewed about their treatment in custody). She was just 19 at the time I met her, and had been incarcerated during the years her peers spent finishing high school and starting college.
After introducing myself, I apologized: I couldn’t shake her hand because her wrists were tightly cuffed and chained, first to each other, then to a chain that ran around her waist and then down to her shackled ankles. These chains shifted as she did, uncomfortably, in her chair.
We talked about her life inside the razor wire perimeter that surrounded the prison. She told me about what it was like for her, living in solitary confinement, in a small, bare, concrete room, alone, for all but an hour or two a day. Solitary confinement, she said, is “like being sunk in a hole.” Alyssa was 16 when she was first in solitary. At the time, she was one of very few girls in a county jail.
She told me that jail officials had placed her in isolation ostensibly for her own protection, to separate her from adults. But her experience shows the perverse logic of protection by solitary confinement. She was in solitary for four months and started cutting herself when she was alone. She said she started, “because it is the only release of my pain.” “When I see the blood,” she said, “it makes me want to keep going.”
The darkest stories of solitary confinement I heard, though, came from those who stopped wanting to keep going, who had planned or tried to take their own life when they were forced into isolation as children, sometimes repeatedly. One young man in Michigan, Paul, told me that at age 14, he was held in solitary confinement in jail to separate him from adult inmates. He said he had also been isolated in prison as punishment. “The hardest thing about the isolation,” he said, “is that you are trapped in such a small room by yourself.” When isolated, he said, you “wonder if it is even worth living,” and then, “your thoughts turn over to the more death-oriented side of life.”
One teen in New York, Luz, told me she tried to hang herself on her very first day in solitary confinement: “I just felt I wanted to die, like there was no way out.”
Children with mental disabilities, who are overrepresented in the justice system, are doubly vulnerable to the harms of solitary confinement. Landon, one such young man, told me that he had had difficulty with auditory and visual hallucinations before he was locked up, at 17. During our conversation about the weeks he spent in solitary in jail, he showed me a forearm scarred from years of cutting and self-harm. He said, “when I was by myself, I would hear stuff and see stuff more.” Solitary, Landon told me, is “not a place that you want to go. It’s like mind torture.”
Solitary confinement is used across the United States, too often and for far too long. It is used as a punishment for violating rules, to protect inmates and—in ways long-disfavored by mental health practitioners—in connection with mental health treatment. Children are subjected to this counterproductive practice in juvenile facilities, as well as in adult jails and prisons, despite being contraindicated by best practices for managing young people in detention. Department of Justice data from 2003 indicated that approximately 15 percent of young people in juvenile facilities had been in solitary confinement.
In an investigation I did for Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, I found adult facilities that subjected all children there to solitary confinement, to protect them, and facilities that placed 10 percent or more of young people in solitary to punish them (using DOJ data, we estimated that in each year between 2006 and 2011, close to 100,000 children were held in adult jails and prisons). According to a Justice Department investigation, between March 2012 and November 2013, the Rikers Island jail sentenced 3,158 young prisoners, ages 16-18, to a total of 143,823 days in solitary confinement (that is, just of 45 days on average, though some spent hundreds of days in isolation).
Momentum toward reform is growing, but not fast enough.
At the international level, perhaps the most important development is the drafting of the “Mandela Rules,” the proposed revised United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. If approved by the General Assembly this fall as expected, the rules would ban solitary confinement of any detainee beyond 15 days and prohibit it for even one day for children. The U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice included corrections leaders from Washington state and Colorado (who have led reform of solitary confinement their) and contributed in important ways to the development of the Rules.
These rules echo repeated statements on solitary confinement for children and adults by the U.N. special rapporteur on torture, who interprets anti-torture provisions of two treaties that the U.S. has signed and ratified (including in a recent report on children deprived of their liberty).
In just the last six months, county or state juvenile justice systems in California, Illinois and Ohio have entered into settlement agreements that either ban or strictly limit solitary confinement. Recent settlements in litigation against the New York state adult prison system also include protections for youth. Perhaps the most important domestic development was the January decision by the New York City Board of Correction, a standard-setting body, to announce an immediate ban on solitary for 16- and 17-year-olds and of plans to soon extend restrictions to 18- to 21-year-olds in jail at Rikers Island.
Last August, when she was a U.S. Attorney, current Attorney General Loretta Lynch reported to the United Nations that Justice Department efforts to promote “reduction of the use of solitary confinement” were a key part of federal efforts to “improve our criminal justice system in furtherance of our human rights obligations.”
It is too late for Kalief Browder, as well as the at least 44 children who have killed themselves in U.S. jails since 2000. And further delay will be measured in lost lives and futures. Leadership by Lynch on a national ban on the solitary confinement of children is urgently needed.