The Serious Reality for Kids In Solitary Confinement

Locking a child up for extended periods of time ranging from several days, weeks, months, and even years without human contact for 23 hours a day causes permanent psychological damage. Children are in the crucial stages of development; it is important to consider that solitary confinement does particularly affect youth physically and emotionally, which can lead to irreversible trauma, psychosis, depression, and even self-harm. Half of all suicides in juvenile facilities occur when youth are in solitary confinement.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has stated that the “isolation of children is dangerous and inconsistent with best practices and that excessive isolation can constitute cruel and unusual punishment.” The U.S. Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence also stated, “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.”

Like-minded nonpartisan organizations are teaming up in support of ending solitary confinement for youth. Stop Solitary for Kids is a national campaign on the forefront of Juvenile Justice Reform. The campaign is a joint effort by the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, and the Justice Policy Institute. They strive to eliminate solitary confinement for children through advocacy and education. The campaign defines solitary confinement as:

“ ‘seclusion,’ ‘isolation,’ ‘segregation,’ and ‘room confinement’ – the involuntary placement of a youth alone in a cell, room, or other area for any reason other than as a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate harm to the youth or others. Solitary confinement is often used in situations where there are insufficient staff or resources to respond to disruptive behavior in less restrictive ways, or in situations where staff feel they have no other options available. Because of limited resources, facility administrators and staff often use solitary confinement for youth with unaddressed mental health, behavioral, or developmental needs.”

This campaign also comments on what solitary confinement is not. They mention that there are times temporary room confinement is needed. If youth are a threat to themselves or others, there are strategies to diffuse situations that would require removing the child from the dangerous situation. This type of safety measure would not require locking the child up for hours on end. Once the situation is resolved, the children will typically go back to the daily schedule.

Our juvenile justice system is long overdue to reform the strategies for child punishment and continued practices of solitary confinement.The following is Lino Silva’s personal testament and account of solitary confinement based on her personal experience in the juvenile justice system for a period of over 7 years:

“Being in a room over 21 hours a day is like a waking nightmare, like you want to scream but you can’t. You want to stretch your legs, walk for more than a few feet. You feel trapped. Life becomes distorted. You shower, eat, sleep, and defecate in the same tiny room. In the same small sink, you ‘shower,’ quench your thirst, wash your hands after using the toilet, and warm your cold dinner in a bag. I developed techniques to survive. I keep a piece of humanity inside myself that can’t be taken away by the guards . . . There’s no second chance here.”

So, now you know what solitary confinement for children means… but why should you care?

Other than the irreversible emotional and physical damage, most of the children who are held in solitary are put there out of convenience, not because they are harmful to themselves or anyone else. There are concerns fiscally and in regard to public safety as well; according to the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, the use of solitary confinement often increases violence in youth and it is overwhelmingly more expensive to practice solitary confinement on children than not. In 2012, the U.S. Attorney General’s Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence called for the end of solitary confinement on youth, stating that “[n]owhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.”

The goal is to have these kids serve the time for the crime and eventually have them reintegrate back into society. Putting them in solitary confinement doesn’t increase public safety and is negatively disproportionate to those with mental illness, behavioral, and developmental needs. The objective is that they come out of jail better than they were upon entry.

Reform is possible and on the horizon. Steps moving forward focus on lessening the length of time and the means by which children are put in solitary. On the local and state level, action is being taken through legislation and agency policy change. There is continued hope that future generations of this country will not experience forms of torture at the hand of the government and will experience a true version of liberty.