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Kids in solitary confinement: 'Cruel, harmful,' groups say

October 10, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • Juvenile Corrections Officers Robert Zinn, left, and Nathan Castle look in on prisoners in their solitary confinement cells at the Marion Juvenile Corrections Institute in Marion, Ohio.
Juvenile Corrections Officers Robert Zinn, left, and Nathan Castle look… (James D. DeCamp / Columbus…)

Young people are being held for long periods of time in solitary confinement in prisons and jails, a practice that should be eliminated, two advocacy groups said Wednesday.

A report released by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch found that those younger than 18 are being held in solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time, especially teenagers who are lodged in adult facilities. The isolation “causes anguish, provokes serious mental and physical health problems, and works against rehabilitation for teenagers,” the report found.

“Locking kids in solitary confinement with little or no contact with other people is cruel, harmful and unnecessary,” Ian Kysel, Aryeh Neier Fellow with the ACLU and HRW and author of the report, said in a prepared statement. “Normal human interaction is essential to the healthy development and rehabilitation of young people; to cut that off helps nobody.”

The study, titled “Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States,” is based on research in U.S. jails and prisons in five states – Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania – and correspondence with young people in 14 others, the groups said.

Researchers interviewed or corresponded with more than 125 young people who spent time in solitary confinement while under age 18. Jail and/or prison officials in 10 states also were interviewed or contacted.

The groups estimated that in 2011, more than 95,000 youths under age 18 were held in prisons and jails. Many of the facilities use solitary confinement – for days, weeks, months, or even years – to punish, protect, house, or treat some of the young people.

Because youths are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow, the groups found. Solitary confinement can worsen mental health. Young people interviewed repeatedly described how solitary confinement compounded the stress of being imprisoned.

“Being in isolation to me felt like I was on an island all alone, dying a slow death from the inside out,” said one young inmate from California, who spent time in solitary confinement.

The report calls for a ban on solitary confinement for youngsters; a prohibition on housing adolescents with adults; and limits on the amount of time youths can be isolated.

“No one believes that locking a teenager in a closet is an effective way to improve either their behavior or their character, much less to protect them long term,” Kysel said. “Young people have rights and needs that are different from adults; jail and prison practices should reflect those differences and promote their ability to grow and change – we should invest in youth, not banish them.”

The ACLU has pushed to limit solitary confinement of youths. It has reached settlements with Mississippi and Montana and has been working on the issue in West Virginia and Illinois, among other states.

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