Should Children Be in Solitary Confinement?

04/22/2013 11:56 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013

In 1840, Charles Dickens visited a prison in Philadelphia and wrote: "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

Still feeling the pain from the news that undocumented workers are sometimes placed in solitary confinement, I was further dismayed and saddened to learn that prisons in America are also putting children in solitary confinement.

It is estimated that there are between 20,000 and 80,000 people in America stripped of their humanity in solitary confinement on any given day -- immigrants, children, and even those with mental illnesses are all put in solitary. As CNN reports, "The 17-year-old drew his suicide note in strips of wet toilet paper on the floor of his jail cell -- a concrete box where he was being held in isolation. 'I'm sorry 1 4 3 fam,' Kirk Gunderson wrote. Code for 'I love you, family.'" This teenager then tied a prison blanket to a smoke detector grate and hanged himself.

Growing Up Locked Down, a joint Human Rights Watch/American Civil Liberties Union report, noted that in 2011, more than 95,000 minors (younger than 18 years old) were held in prisons and jails. While it is difficult to generalize how many of these children were held in solitary confinement, 2012 data compiled for the report from the New York City Department of Corrections showed the following:

  • More than 14 percent of youth offenders were held in solitary confinement at one time, with the average period in solitary at the Rikers Island detention facility being 43 days
  • Nearly half the adolescent detainees at Rikers Island have been diagnosed with mental health problems, yet adolescents in solitary confinement are routinely denied all services and treatment that might help their mental health status

The report details the harsh conditions that many youths face in solitary confinement, including no visitors, including family members; no access to reading materials or writing implements, nor any chance to attend classes or programming; and exercise limited to a small outside metal cage, in solitude, a few times each week. Thus, solitary confinement means 22 hours or more each day of cramped isolation, usually locked behind a solid steel door. If they are lucky, these young prisoners may have a cell with a window, or an occasional book such as the Bible. Many adolescents treated this way respond by showing signs of extreme stress, from having hallucinations or losing touch with reality to cutting themselves and attempting suicide, as well as a deterioration of their physical health from a lack of exercise.

Why has this happened? Until the 1980s, young offenders were not thrown in with the adult prison population and did not experience the same harsh treatment. However, since the 1980s, in a wave of legislation that more than tripled the U.S. prison population, most America states have instituted laws that prosecute minors as adults for many crimes, with an enormous rise in long prison sentences and periods of solitary confinement. There remains a concerted lack of appreciation that minors have special needs and possibilities for rehabilitation.

The joint report notes that solitary confinement can do permanent damage to the mental and physical health of teenagers:

Experts assert that young people are psychologically unable to handle solitary confinement with the resilience of an adult. And, because they are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow. Solitary confinement can exacerbate, or make more likely, short and long-term mental health problems. The most common deprivation that accompanies solitary confinement, denial of physical exercise, is physically harmful to adolescents' health and well-being.

Many scientific studies have confirmed what every parent and teacher knows: Teenagers often act in an impulsive, risky manner.

Millions of American teenagers have been diagnosed with attention-deficity/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and associated mood and anxiety disorders and other mental health problems. This, of course, does not exclude harmful behavior but provides us more context. These conditions result in an abnormal pursuit of stimulation and extremely impulsive behavior, without regard for consequences. Consider these mental health findings:

  • Teenagers with ADHD have approximately four times as many driving accidents and three times as many tickets for speeding violations as teenagers who had not been diagnosed with ADHD
  • In one study, more than half of the teenagers diagnosed with ADHD contracted a sexually transmitted disease
  • Teenagers diagnosed with ADHD are far more likely to use recreational drugs and abuse alcohol, have a gambling problem, and have unstable personal relationships than their peers

There are scientific explanations for this type of abnormal adolescent behavior, and for why adults usually exhibit them less. Along with obvious physical changes that take place in teenagers' bodies, there are very important changes that occur in the adolescent brain. We now know that this is because the adolescent brain is not fully developed, especially in the frontal lobe, which governs cognitive processing (e.g., the ability to organize thoughts and plans). In particular, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which controls impulsive behavior and allows a person to consider the consequences of actions, does not fully develop until our mid-20s. Many psychiatrists now understand that an adolescent with this developing brain may be particularly impressionable at this age, and the stress of solitary confinement may do permanent mental health damage, whereas a more rehabilitative regimen may improve the adolescent's mental health and produce a well-adjusted adult, one who can contribute to society.

The anonymous voices of teenagers in solitary confinement speak to us through the joint report:

  • "The anger and hurt gets so intense that you suspect everyone and trust no one and when someone does something nice for you, you don't understand it."
  • "I cut myself. I started doing it because it is the only release of my pain. I'd see the blood and I'd be happy ... I did it with staples, not razors. When I see the blood and it makes me want to keep going. I showed the officers and they didn't do anything..."
  • "We didn't do anything wrong to be put in isolation. They say it's to protect us but I think it puts us in more danger ... [H]ow could we be charged as men but be separated from men. It makes no sense."
  • "There is nothing to do so you start talking to yourself and getting lost in your own little world. It is crushing. You get depressed and wonder if it is even worth living."

Human rights organizations consider solitary confinement for minors, as well as the denial of visits or access to services, to be violations of international law. They point out that youthful offenders could be housed in separate facilities in which rehabilitation could be stressed through reinforcement of positive behaviors, and that solitary confinement should never be used on these prisoners. The joint report cited above offers key recommendations that include banning solitary confinement for minors; segregating minors from adults in jails and prisons; strictly limiting, regulating and monitoring these policies and practices; and finally, for the United States to ratify international treaties that protect minors from inhumane treatment. We must act resolutely to ensure that our age is not remembered as a time when thousands of teenagers were routinely treated in such a cruel manner by our own government. We must stand up together and call for these policies to come to an end with all due haste.

I have argued adamantly that Judaism is opposed to solitary confinement and so are other faiths. This is why the NRCAT (National Religious Campaign Against Torture) has come out strongly in support of SB 61 (Yee), a bill that would limit the harmful practice of solitary confinement of youth in the juvenile justice system in California.

Momentum to halt the use of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons continues to build nationally, with the first-ever Congressional Hearing on the use of prolonged solitary confinement convened in 2012 by Senator Dick Durbin (IL). Following the hearing, in February 2013, the Federal Bureau of Prisons committed to the first-ever independent and comprehensive assessment of its use of prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. federal prisons.

SB 61 sets standards for the use of solitary confinement at state and county juvenile correctional facilities. Among the provisions of SB 61, the bill would:

  • Define solitary confinement as the involuntary placement in a room or cell in isolation from persons other than staff and attorneys.
  • Provide that solitary confinement shall only be used when a minor poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or the security of the facility, and all other less restrictive options have been exhausted.
  • Provide that a minor or ward shall only be held in solitary confinement for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk.
  • Provide additional restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for minors with suicidal or self-harming behavior.
  • Provide that clinical staff shall review minors or wards regularly to ensure that their physical and mental health is not endangered.
  • Empower existing county juvenile justice commissions to report on the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities.

In a moment when the use of prolonged solitary confinement of youth is under increasing scrutiny around the country, SB 61 presents California with a critical opportunity to lead the way nationally in increasing access to rehabilitation and reducing harm for our young people. I would urge all to support S.B. 61 and to speak out against solitary confinement around the nation.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, the Founder and C.E.O. of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." In 2012 and 2013, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."

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