Stop Solitary for Kids

Co-authored by Mark Soler, Executive Director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy, and one of the leaders of #StopSolitaryForKids.

Every day in the United States, some 54,000 young people are incarcerated in the juvenile justice system. Many experience the harsh realities of solitary confinement during their imprisonment, often for minor rule violations. Research and experience reveal the impact of solitary on young people to be devastating, including trauma, psychological damage, depression, anxiety, and increased risk of suicide. Often, youth in solitary do not receive appropriate education, mental health services, or drug treatment. Because adolescents are still developing, solitary confinement can cause permanent harm to their physical, psychological, and social well-being. More than half of all suicides in juvenile facilities occur while young people are held in solitary. Many youth literally go mad in such conditions.

That's why solitary for young people must end.

Solitary confinement in this country dates back to 1787. Quakers in the 19th Century viewed solitary as an avenue to penitence and rehabilitation. They opened America's first "penitentiary" - Eastern State -in 1829, where prisoners spent their days in mind-numbing silence and isolation from one another.

The harms of such treatment soon became clear. In 1842, Charles Dickens visited Eastern State and reported that solitary confinement was "worse than any torture of the body." The U.S. Supreme Court noted in 1890 that solitary failed to deliver on its promise of rehabilitation, leading instead to severe depression, "violent insanity," and suicide. Today, many juvenile facilities in this country continue the practice that began more than 200 years ago, with the same results.

Kalief Browder was a victim of solitary confinement. In 2010, at age 16, he was arrested on suspicion of stealing a backpack. He spent the next three years at the Rikers Island jail in New York City, two of those years in solitary confinement. He was never charged or tried for the offense, maintaining his innocence through his incarceration. The charge was dismissed and he was released in June, 2013. He had suffered severe emotional problems as a result of his experience, and committed suicide on June 6, 2015.

Kalief's case galvanized concern about the dangers of solitary confinement. Solitary for juveniles under age 18 in Rikers Island facilities has been abolished and the City's Corrections Commissioner has announced plans to eliminate solitary for youth ages 18 to 21 in his facilities this summer.

Twelve days after Kalief's death, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a concurring opinion about the dangers of solitary, noting the same concerns raised by the Supreme Court in 1890 and confirmed by modern researchers. He cited Kalief's tragedy and invited a case for the Court to "determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them."

On July 14, five weeks after Kalief's death, at the NAACP National Convention, President Obama revealed that he had asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct a review of the "overuse of solitary confinement across America's prisons." The Justice Department's findings were released on January 25, 2016, and the same day, citing Kalief's case, President Obama announced he was banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody.

Congress also moved quickly after Kalief's death. On October 1, 2015, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced legislation to ban juvenile solitary in federal facilities.

This week, in Washington, DC, organizations representing advocates for children and directors of state juvenile corrections agencies launched a campaign do just that. Stop Solitary for Kids is a partnership of the Center for Children's Law and Policy, the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, the Council of Juvenile Corrections Administrators (CJCA), and the Justice Policy Institute. Importantly, associations for juvenile and adult correctional administrators like the American Correctional Association and CJCA - the people charged with the duty of protecting youth and staff in correctional facilities - have signed on to the call for banning that destructive practice. So has Venida Browder, Kalief's mother.

As people who have run juvenile correctional facilities or litigated conditions in them, we recognize that room confinement is sometimes necessary if a youth poses an immediate risk of harm to self or others and de-escalation strategies haven't worked. When young people regain self-control however, staff should release them and return them to regular programming.

Several states have shown the way by eliminating or significantly reducing the use of solitary for young people, including Indiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, DC. They have found that reducing solitary actually makes juvenile facilities safer for staff as well as youth. Other states should adopt similar reforms to prevent any more needless tragedies.