Children in Solitary

This week, the The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry released a policy statement condemning the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. There is no comprehensive data on how many teens and even younger children are in solitary confinement in the United States, but it is safe to say that the number run into the thousands. Juveniles in adult prison often end up in solitary confinement, and isolation is widely used in juvenile facilities as well.

On the ACLU “Blog of Rights” today, David Fathi, Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, puts the statement in context:

As any parent knows, teenagers are different than adults. This common-sense observation is backed by hard scientific evidence; we know that an adolescent’s brain continues to grow and develop well into his or her twenties. The fact that teenagers’ brains are still developing makes them especially vulnerable to trauma of all kinds, including the trauma of social isolation and sensory deprivation.

That’s why the leading American child psychiatry association just approved a policy statement opposing the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities for juveniles. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry represents over 7,500 child and adolescent psychiatrists and other interested physicians.

This groundbreaking policy statement from adolescent psychiatry experts comes not a moment too soon. While recent settlements in ACLU lawsuits in Montana and Mississippi include limits on solitary confinement for youth, the practice remains alarmingly widespread, with thousands of persons under 18 held in solitary on any given day, in juvenile facilities as well as in adult jails and prisons. I remember the first time I visited a 13-year-old boy in solitary in an adult prison – his voice hadn’t changed yet and he was too young to shave, but that didn’t save him from being locked alone in a cell for 23 hours a day.

Solitary confinement can be harmful for people of any age, but it’s especially damaging to youth. The 17-year-old plaintiff in the ACLU’s Montana case tried to kill himself several times while in solitary confinement in an adult prison. And while youth in solitary are a relatively small percentage of the total population of juvenile facilities, they account for more than half of the suicides.

Fortunately efforts are underway to end this inhumane and destructive practice. In California, Sen. Leland Yee introduced a bill to ban solitary confinement for juveniles except in the most exceptional circumstances. The bill attracted considerable support, but eventually failed to pass out of committee. And in West Virginia, the Division of Juvenile Services recently announced a state-wide ban on the practice.

Click here to read the rest, and to sign the ACLU’s petition against solitary confinement.

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

James Ridgeway (1936-2021) was the founder and co-director of Solitary Watch. An investigative journalist for over 60 years, he served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice and Mother Jones, reporting domestically on subjects ranging from electoral politics to corporate malfeasance to the rise of the racist far-right, and abroad from Central America, Northern Ireland, Eastern Europe, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Earlier, he wrote for The New Republic and Ramparts, and his work appeared in dozens of other publications. He was the co-director of two films and author of 20 books, including a forthcoming posthumous edition of his groundbreaking 1991 work on the far right, Blood in the Face. Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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