Veteran news anchor Ted Koppel ended his piece on kids locked away in solitary confinement on Rock Center with Brian Williams this past Friday by describing the practice as a "national disgrace."
The religious community shares in Koppel's sentiment. People of faith are particularly concerned about youth in solitary confinement in youth facilities and adult prisons. As a Presbyterian minister and as a grandfather, I believe the solitary confinement of youth is both wrong and counterproductive. In many states, children under 18 years old and "youthful offenders" under 24 are held in solitary confinement in adult prisons. The long-term psychological and developmental impacts of solitary confinement upon children are particularly devastating, resulting in hallucinations, paranoia, and increased rates of self-mutilation and suicide.
Citing CIA studies into the impact of prolonged solitary confinement, psychologist Dr. Stuart Grassian described the results of solitary as "permanent impairment." If indeed 95 percent of the youth currently held in such debilitating conditions of isolation in U.S. prisons and jails will at some point return home to our communities, we all have a shared stake in their condition.
I believe that all human beings have been given inherent dignity and worth. Solitary confinement degrades those gifts. My faith teaches that human beings thrive in community and consequently, denying human beings the community they need is unacceptable.
The problem of solitary confinement extends beyond youth in the system. The United States has become a world leader in incarceration and in holding prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement. With just five percent of the world's population, the United States holds 25 percent of the world's prison population and the vast majority of all prisoners held in long-term solitary confinement. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 80,000 people in the U.S. criminal justice system are held in some form of isolation.
For the many faith traditions that comprise the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, all recognize the inherent dignity of each human being, and the particular importance of protecting the health and growth of children. We believe that prolonged solitary confinement denies the essential human need for community and profoundly disrupts the developmental progress of youth, and must be brought to an end.
There is a story in the Book of Isaiah in which the prophet tells King Hezekiah that his children will be taken into exile in Assyria. The king responds by saying, "At least there will be peace in my day." Like King Hezekiah, short-sighted decisions may give a sense of security now by hiding the reality and the long-term impacts of placing young people in solitary confinement. By placing young people in solitary who will be released having experienced the horrors of such conditions, our society is failing our young people and the communities to which they will one day return.
There is good news: Many states throughout the United States are awakening to the need for the practice of placing youth in solitary confinement to end. A number of bills have been introduced in states including Florida, California, Montana and Texas to limit or eliminate the use of juvenile solitary confinement. Campaigns are growing around the country to bring this abusive practice to an end.
In Florida, a state that holds more young people under age 18 in adult state prisons than any other state, a bill (SB 812) has been introduced which includes provisions that strictly limit the use of solitary confinement of both children under 18 years old and youthful offenders under 24. Currently, there is no prohibition in state law or Florida Department of Corrections policy or regulation against holding young people in solitary confinement in Florida prisons and jails. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture is working hard to support this bill as well as similar ones in California and other states.
I want a future community for my grandchildren which is marked by health and wholeness. By working to end the practice of the solitary confinement of youth, I hope to contribute to that kind of community.