The United States, alone among industrialized nations, incarcerates thousands of juveniles in adult prisons, after trying and sentencing them as adults. We also lead the world in the practice of solitary confinement. These two facts have come together to create a horrifying reality: hundreds of children languishing in isolation cells.
This week, the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Poverty Law Center announced that after years of litigation, they had reached an agreement with the state of Mississippi that will end juvenile solitary confinement in its prisons. According to a post on the ACLU’s “Blog of Rights”:
On March 22, 2012, a federal court in Jackson, Mississippi, will enter a groundbreaking consent decree, believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, banning the horrendous practice of subjecting kids convicted as adults to solitary confinement…While in solitary, the youth are held in almost complete isolation and sensory deprivation with virtually no human contact, without books, paper or pens, radios, pictures, access to television or any kind of recreational activity, and are denied all visits, telephone calls and even mail from their families. If prison staff tags a kid as suicidal — which they often do with punitive motives — that kid is stripped naked except for a paper gown and denied a mattress.
It’s been known for a long time that prolonged solitary confinement inflicts intense suffering, worsens pre-existing mental illness and causes psychiatric breakdown even in mature healthy adults — let alone in emotionally vulnerable kids. International law recognizes that solitary confinement can rise to torture and, furthermore, that kids under the age of 18 are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of solitary. These effects are so well understood that international law now prohibits solitary confinement of any person under the age of 18, strongly condemning it as a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
According to the Jackson Clarion Ledger, the groups’ lawsuit, filed in November 2010, challenged what it called “brutal, unconstitutional conditions” at Mississippi’s Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility. WGYCF, which houses male prisoners ages 13 to 22, is operated by the GEO Group, America’s second largest private prison company. In addition to placing kids in solitary confinement, the suit alleges that “guards beat inmates, smuggled drugs to the youths and engaged in sexual acts with them,” as well as allowing older inmates to prey on younger ones. In an incident two years ago, 14 young inmates were injured, including one who suffered brain damage. The consent degree announced this week will also ban the placement of juveniles at WGYCF.