Over 60,000 juveniles are incarcerated on any one day in the US. 35% of them will experience solitary confinement at some point, locked down twenty-three hours a day in a windowless cell without human contact. The United Nations calls this torture. Prisons say it’s necessary for the safety of inmates. Should the practice be abolished?
You’re a transgender teenage girl. Your life has been a vicious cycle of abuse and institutionalisation. After you were sexually abused, you became a ward of the state of Connecticut. Ultimately, After you assaulted a staff member who came up behind you to put you in a “bear hug”, the state of Connecticut sent you to a women’s prison, and to solitary confinement.
You gained your identity when you came out as trans, but now, solitary confinement has stripped it from you. You can’t be around adult inmates though, nor would you be safe in that environment since transgender prisoners are among the most vulnerable. You have a history of mental illness, and now – as you lose track of time and question your own worth – you really feel like you’re going crazy. This, the state tells you, is for your own protection.
The case above belongs to a 16-year-old teen, first reported by Mother Jones. But her story is not unique. On any given day, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, around 60,000 juveniles are imprisoned in the US, a number that has been on the decline since 2000. While the number of incarcerated youth has decreased, the use of solitary confinement in youth facilities has not.
Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war, once said, “It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
In her 2016 book ‘Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison’, author Nell Bernstein echoes McCain’s sentiments. She describes solitary confinement – which goes by many euphemisms, including ‘room restriction’ and ‘time-out’ – as:
“cells…used to house the victimizer, the vulnerable, the suicidal, or the simply defiant, with little distinction made between them. Youth deemed in need of protection (from themselves or others) or discipline spend up to twenty-three hours a day in these barren cells, with the mattress removed in the name of safety”
The United Nations likens the practice to torture. In 2016, President Obama banned solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal system, the overwhelming majority of whom are Native American. That decision, however, only affected a small number of total juveniles (about 71 juvenile federal prisoners, 13 of whom were in isolation at the time), and the practice continues on the state level.
In a system where mental health services are already lacking, consequences of solitary confinement on the vulnerable teenage brain can be devastating. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Solitary confinement can cause extreme psychological, physical, and developmental harm. For children, who are still developing and more vulnerable to irreparable harm, the risks are magnified – particularly for kids with disabilities or histories of trauma and abuse.”
In response to those who say that solitary confinement is necessary to protect inmates, Bernstein writes, “In a particularly bitter irony, the stricter the means of custody and control at a particular institution, the higher the odds that youth will be victimized there, by guards as well as peers.”
Bernstein insists that “rehabilitation happens in the context of relationship,” and that “when there are strong and trusting relationships between staff and youth, [solitary confinement] is unnecessary.”
A Necessary Evil?
Giddings State School, situated between Austin and Houston, Texas, is a maximum-security facility for male juvenile offenders, many of whom are there for violent crimes. In 2015, a riot left three people injured. This incident prompted John Whitmire, a member of the Texas State Senate, to declare that the state-run facility was “out of control.” One way that such facilities maintain control and order is with solitary confinement. Indeed, forty-two youths were sent to “security cells”, another solitary confinement euphemism.
According to Anthony Gangi, Assistant Superintendent at Northern State Prison in New Jersey, solitary confinement is “a way to motivate compliance in a manner that is humane and decent.” Or, “the removal of an inmate from general population so control and order can be maintained.”
While many agree that solitary can have damaging effects on youth, coming up with alternatives is difficult. And, in the cases in which solitary confinement is used to protect members of vulnerable populations, it does prevent other prisoners from physically harming them.
In the case of the Connecticut transgender teen, she ended up in solitary confinement through no fault of her own, but rather, because the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 states that youth held in adult prisons cannot be housed with adult inmates. Otherwise, they would most certainly be targets for rape. According to the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, youths in adult prisons are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their counterparts in juvenile detention centres.
Furthermore, transgender inmates often find themselves in solitary for a similar reason, they too are at an extremely high risk for victimisation. According to a study that took place in California by the Center for Evidence-Based Corrections, transgender women are thirteen times more likely to be sexually assaulted than cisgender inmates.
For certain inmates, isolating them from the general population may be the only way to keep them safe, at least until the justice system devises a new solution. But the reality is that an overburdened and beleaguered system may not have the resources to foster positive relationships between staff and inmates. Given that the system is not known for its speedy reforms, this may remain the status quo.
The issue of solitary confinement weighs on the American consciousness, and often filters into mainstream culture with television shows from ‘Orange is the New Black’ to ‘Law and Order: SVU’ tackling the issue in primetime. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States prison system is long overdue reform – including its juvenile system. But exactly what changes should be made, and who will bear the consequences is unclear. With so many factors to consider, the future of solitary confinement, and juvenile inmates themselves, still hangs in the balance.