Excerpt from NY State Bar Association Civil Rights CommitteeREPORT TO THE HOUSE OF DELEGATES
“In addition to those suffering from mental illness, juveniles and the elderly are also subjected to the same form of isolation as adult prisoners.
As far as juveniles are concerned, current scientific research suggests that juveniles lack the culpability of adults because they lack fully developed frontal lobes required for impulse control and because their brain structure is fundamentally and significantly different from that of adults.
General principles of child development show that adolescents process thoughts, feelings and information in qualitatively different ways than adults and that they are psychologically very different from adults. Because juveniles lack a developed frontal lobe, they tend to process emotional decisions in the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for instinctive (and often impulsive) reactions.
An adult’s fully developed frontal lobe typically allows the adult to curb impulsive decisions coming from other parts of the brain such as the limbic system. As such, normal juveniles cannot be expected to operate with the level of maturity, judgment, risk aversion or impulse control of an adult. This is particularly true in stressful situations, where juvenile brain circuitry is not sufficiently established to sustain adult-level cognitive control of their behavior in the face of heightened states of affect or motivation.
In the correctional setting, there is no harsher punishment than solitary confinement.
Imposing solitary confinement on a child is particularly harsh. Because of how they experience time, juveniles subjectively perceive the duration of a sanction as lasting longer than an adult would experience a sanction of the same duration.
In practical terms, sentencing juveniles to prolonged isolation is harsher than an equivalent sentence is for an adult.
Moreover, from a developmental point of view, prolonged isolation is problematic because juveniles are undergoing developmentally important phases of life in an institutional setting with idiosyncratic demands particular to that setting.
Depriving them of normal developmental opportunities, such as social contact, physical exercise and intellectual stimulation for prolonged periods of time, will irreparably damage any prospect they may have for normal development.
Punishing a child whose brain is not fully developed by placing him in solitary confinement for any length of time clearly violates our contemporary standards of decency as evidenced by a plethora of data on child development. New York State has recognized the vulnerable stage of development of the adolescent by establishing standards for the treatment of juveniles in detention which include a prohibition on the use of solitary confinement in the discipline of children.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice, Chief of the Special Litigation Section, Civil Rights Division has remarked that “the wholesale adoption of many adult practices without taking adequate account of the relevant differences between adults and adolescents, has often resulted in operational difficulties and violations of juvenile’s federal rights. The use of extended isolation as a method of behavior control, for example, is an import from the adult system that has proven both harmful and counterproductive when applied to juveniles. It too often leads to increased incidents of depression and self-mutilation among isolated juveniles, while also exacerbating their behavior problems.”
But in New York State, juveniles can be sent to state prison and the regulations that apply to juvenile facilities will not apply to them while they are there. As of December 2010, there were 689 individuals in DOCCS custody between the ages of 16-18 and 2,064 between the ages of 19 and 20. Any of those individuals can be placed in prolonged isolation.”