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The Solitary Confinement of Children: Child Abuse by Any Other Name

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As a lawyer, I have advocated for the rights of children for nearly 40 years. I have successfully challenged policies and practices that harm children across the United States and written briefs in cases before the United States Supreme Court that helped to upend prevailing notions about children, crime and punishment. I helped lead the legal fight to redress the grievous wrongs suffered by 2,500 youth in the notorious kids-for-cash scandal in Pennsylvania.

I am also the parent of two young women who are now adults in their twenties, who thankfully avoided any contact with the justice system as they were growing up. Invariably, I find myself looking at the battles I fight on behalf of children through a lens that includes them -- something we should all do. What if this was happening to our children?

Nowhere does this question provoke more anguish for me than in my work challenging the solitary confinement of children.

In 2009, I and my colleagues at Juvenile Law Center were asked to take on the case of 15-year-old T. D., who was placed in solitary confinement for 178 days while committed to the New Jersey juvenile justice system. He was initially placed in solitary out of concern for his mental health. Yes -- ironic, using solitary confinement to "help" a child with mental health and emotional issues. Troy spent the majority of this seven month period locked alone in a 7x7-foot cell that is about the size of a large closet -- a thought that makes me shudder when I think of my own children being held in such a space. He had no access to television, radio, computer or any other visual or audio stimuli. He was only permitted out of the "closet" to shower -- if he wanted to. He received no education, was provided no reading materials, drawing or writing materials, was offered no recreational opportunities, and had virtually no interaction with his peers -- except to the extent that he could yell to similarly isolated juveniles through vents in their cells.

He was also often required to wear a "Ferguson gown" -- a Velcro-strapped suicide prevention garment to protect him from self-harming behavior. Desperate for attention, he smeared feces in his cell, and threw medication. This behavior was viewed as manipulative and grounds for his continued seclusion. He was fed only finger foods. Some days, he was denied a mattress or bed coverings in the name of protecting him. He was denied visits with family members, as a sanction for failing to turn his behavior around. He was denied individual or group therapy because he was in solitary, a particularly cruel irony given the purported rationale for his seclusion.

He turned 16 in solitary confinement.

Sadly, T.D.'s story is not an anomaly. The pervasive use of solitary confinement in America is a recurring story. Recently, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois held his second Congressional hearing on this topic, calling for a ban on the use of solitary confinement in our federal and state prison systems for all prisoners, but especially for the most vulnerable -- the mentally ill, the persecuted, the old and the young.

In addition to testimony from prison officials, experts, victims and survivors of solitary confinement, written testimony was also submitted from Juvenile Law Center. The facts are mind-numbingly repetitive: Approximately 80,000 individuals are currently held in solitary confinement, often under horrific conditions that can only be described as medieval or barbaric, especially for children. Our hypocrisy is glaring. How can we call ourselves a humane, civilized society and yet subject individuals to what most countries readily call torture, and what Human Rights Watch and The American Civil Liberties Union aptly declared a human rights violation?

The result of the hearings? For now, incremental and limited recommendations -- tackling only the most vulnerable populations, which number in the hundreds in the federal system, leaving thousands nationwide to wait even longer for relief.

While we ultimately obtained a financial settlement for Troy, nothing can repair the harm done to this young man. The very thought of a 15-year-old child locked in a closet, or "box" as they call it on the inside, continues to haunt me -- as both a lawyer and a parent. I cannot bear the thought of any child being locked alone in a closet for even for 24 hours, much less seven months. And if a parent would do such a thing, they would be subject to a charge of child abuse. Neighbors would rightfully ask, "Who does that to a child?"

The answer to this question is simply: we all do. Either by our action or our inaction. Each and every day that we tolerate the solitary confinement of children anywhere in America, we must share the responsibility for locking children in the 'box.' Whether we call it torture, or understand how it exacerbates -- rather than helps -- stress and mental health issues, or even know that national and international standards condemn the practice, we surely must know enough that it is wrong. Take a moment and imagine someone locking your child, or your neighbor's child, in a closet.

Use of solitary confinement on a child is nothing short of government-sanctioned child abuse. We need to end the practice now.