An unbelievably widespread practice exists of placing children in solitary confinement (regularly referred to as “protective custody”), often for minor offenses. Solitary confinement has been shown to cause severe pain and psychological damage, and because of the vulnerability, and specific needs of adolescents, solitary confinement can be a particularly cruel and harmful practice when applied to them.
Given that nearly 100,000 youth under the age of 18 pass through adult prisons and jails annually, there are thousands of children placed in solitary confinement each year, but we are unable to derive any official count. The overall rate of solitary confinement in American prisons is thought to be between 3% and 5%, and anecdotal evidence suggests that children may be isolated at even higher rates than adults. While over 20 states have laws which stipulate that juveniles are to be kept apart from adult prisoners, most of the United States’ 3,000 jails lack dedicated facilities for children. The only alternative available to them is to place the children in solitary confinement. The United States holds more individuals in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation on earth.
A study by Michele Deitch and a team of student researchers at the University of Texas’s LBJ School, found that on a given day in 2008, there were more than 11,300 children under 18 being held in the nation’s adult prisons and jail. Over half of states permit children under the age of 12 to be treated as an adult for criminal justice purposes. In over 22 other states (including the District of Columbia), children as young as 7 can be prosecuted and tried in adult court, where they would be subjected to harsh adult sanctions, including long prison terms, mandatory sentences, and placement in adult prison.
According to a Amnesty International and a Human Rights Watch report in 2005, most teenagers in adult prisons often end up in solitary confinement, either because they are considered “disciplinary problems” and their removal is to prevent gang affiliation and interactions, or because they have to be isolated from adult offenders for their own protection.
Often, solitary confinement or ‘protective custody’ is justified because the individual is believed to be vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse. Unfortunately, this sometimes happens anyway, often at the hands of the guards, which is why some states have taken measures to start screening prison guards for prior sex crimes.
Even though they are in solitary for their own protection, many receive no educational or rehabilitative programing while there, and some are also barred from seeing their families. Thousands of teenagers, some as young as 14 or 15, are routinely subjected by US prisons to this psychological torture of solitary confinement, and the strict punishment on young offenders has proven to be ineffective in reducing recidivism. Isolation can be psychologically harmful to any prisoner, depending on the individual, the duration, and particular conditions (e.g., access to natural light, books, communication with others, or radio). Psychological effects can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis (Smith, 2006).
Despite various ‘reform’ attempts by government and criminal justice experts and professionals, nothing will be as effective as re-defining, and re-thinking, about what constitutes a crime or criminal behavior in the first place. Introducing more transparent and responsible institutions, in place of current programs, is also a necessary step. When we send children to jail, we only open opportunities for them to associate themselves with negative influences, most network with other criminals, and some basically just learn how to become a better at breaking the law criminal. Don’t inflict cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment on individuals under the guise of protecting them. This kind of treatment of young offenders does more damage than it does good.
Smith PS: The effects of solitary confinement on prison inmates: a brief history and review of the literature. Crim Just 34:441-568, 2006