October is National Youth Justice Awareness Month, and the Campaign for Youth Justice is taking the opportunity to educate the public about youth incarcerated in the adult criminal justice system. Even though the ideas behind laws for sentencing and incarcerating children as adults have been debunked, there are still 250,000 youth on an annual basis in the United States that are tried, sentence or incarcerated as adults. A particularly disturbing aspect of housing youth in adult facilities is that they can be subject to solitary confinement, which has more profound negative impact on youth than on adults.
A new report from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, is based on interviews and correspondence with more than 125 youth in 19 states who spent time in solitary confinement while under age 18.
The bare social and physical environment makes youth feel doomed and abandoned, or in some cases, suicidal, and can lead to serious physical and emotional consequences. Youth in solitary confinement describe cutting themselves with staples or razors, hallucinations, losing control of themselves, or losing touch with reality. They talk about only being allowed to exercise in small metal cages, alone, a few times a week; about being prevented from going to school or participating in any activity that promotes growth or change. Oftentimes they are denied visitation from family and relatives.
Experts assert that youth are psychologically unable to handle solitary confinement with the resilience of an adult. And, because they are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow. Solitary confinement can exacerbate, or make more likely, short and long-term mental health problems. The most common deprivation that accompanies solitary confinement, denial of physical exercise, is physically harmful to adolescents’ health and well-being.
Youth can be guilty of crimes with significant consequences for victims, their families, and their communities. The state has a duty to ensure accountability for serious crimes, and to protect the public. But states also have special responsibilities not to treat youth in ways that can permanently harm their development and rehabilitation. Fortunately, there is a way to accomplish both public safety and the safety of the youth who have committed crimes.
Solitary confinement is costly, ineffective, and harmful with consequences for both the youth and the general public. Youth who have experienced solitary confinement return to their communities with psychological damage, social deprivation, and the deprivation of essential services such as mental health counseling and education. This puts them at an increased risk to commit more crimes that will reinvolve them with the justice system, and puts them at a disadvantage for acquiring stable employment.
The ACLU’s report describes a number of better policies that policymakers could implement as alternatives to solitary confinement. Youth can be better managed in facilities designed to meet their unique needs, staffed with specially trained personnel, and organized to encourage positive behaviors. Another useful step would be to conduct a review of laws, policies and practices that result in youth being held in solitary confinement to get a better sense of what would be necessary to end this practice.
Of course, the most effective way to reduce youth being held in solitary confinement would be to keep youth entirely out of adult detention facilities. Never housing youth in adult facilities will both help better rehabilitate adolescents and better ensure the safety of our communities. For more details, visit the Policy For Results website on policies that can reduce juvenile detention. Rather than continuing a practice like solitary confinement, which does much harm and no good, policymakers can reform the juvenile justice system so that youth are guaranteed the ability to grow, be rehabilitated, and reenter society successfully.
Sign up on policyforresults.org for updates on results-based public policy strategies for preventing juvenile delinquency and ensuring quality juvenile justice services – coming soon!