Molly J said of her time in solitary confinement:
“[I felt] doomed, like I was being banished … Like you have the plague or that you are the worst thing on earth. Like you are set apart [from] everything else. I guess [I wanted to] feel like I was part of the human race – not like some animal.”
Molly was just 16 years old when she was placed in isolation in an adult jail in Michigan. She described her cell as being “a box”.
“There was a bed – the slab. It was concrete … There was a stainless steel toilet/sink combo … The door was solid, without a food slot or window … There was no window at all.”
Molly remained in solitary for several months, locked down alone in her cell for at least 22 hours a day.
No other nation in the developed world routinely tortures its children in this manner. And torture is indeed the word brought to mind by a shocking report released today by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union. Growing Up Locked Down documents, for the first time, the widespread use of solitary confinement on youth under the age of 18 in prisons and jails across the country, and the deep and permanent harm it causes to kids caught up in the adult criminal justice system.
Ian Kysel, author of the 141-page report, interviewed or corresponded with more than 125 young people who had spent time in solitary as children in 19 states. To cope with endless hours of extreme isolation, sensory deprivation and crippling loneliness, Kysel learned that some children made up imaginary friends or played games in their heads. Some hid under the covers and tried to sleep as much as possible, while others found they could not sleep at all…
In fact, solitary confinement has been shown to cause severe pain and psychological damage to the tens of thousands of adults who endure it every day in American prisons. On children, the report states, the practice has a “distinct and particularly profound impact.” Because of “the special vulnerability and needs of adolescents, solitary confinement can be a particularly cruel and harmful practice when applied to them.” This is all the more true because for many of these kids, “developmental immaturity is compounded by mental disabilities and histories of trauma, abuse, and neglect.”
Yet, prisons and jails commonly use isolation as punishment for violating prison rules, including both violent and nonviolent infractions. One boy who entered a Colorado jail at age 15 said the guards doled out stints in solitary for crimes that would, in any other setting, be deemed normal adolescent behavior:
“15 days for not making the bed; 15 days for not keeping the cell door open; 20 or 25 days for being in someone else’s cell.”
On Rikers Island in New York City, more than 14% of adolescents between 16 and 18 spent some period in “disciplinary segregation”. This despite the fact that nearly half of all adolescents on Rikers have been found to have a “diagnosed mental disorder”.
Other kids are isolated as a form of “protective custody”, because they are vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse. Even though they are being locked down “for their own good”, many receive no educational or rehabilitative programming while in solitary, and some are barred from seeing their families.
Still, other children are placed in solitary confinement for “treatment” purposes, especially after threatening or attempting suicide – even though isolation has been shown to sharply increase the risk that prisoners will take their own lives.
“There is nothing to do so you start talking to yourself and getting lost in your own little world. It is crushing,” said Paul K, who spent 60 days in solitary when he was 14.
“You get depressed and wonder if it is even worth living. Your thoughts turn over to the more death-oriented side of life.”
No one knows precisely how many children live in these conditions, since many state and local correctional systems do not keep such data. But the overall rate of solitary confinement in American prisons is thought to be between 3% and 5%, and anecdotal evidence suggests that, in some systems, children may be isolated at even higher rates than adults. Given that nearly 100,000 youth under the age of 18 pass through adult prisons and jails annually, there exists the staggering possibility that thousands of children are spending time in solitary confinement each year.
There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.
The number of teenagers living in solitary confinement is staggering–does prison help?
To hear the full podcast: http://adamvstheman.com/podcast
Published on Nov 17, 2012
A social worker says up to six children are being kept in solitary confinement in a maximum-security adult prison in Victoria.
“There’s no natural light, no natural air. Often there is either dead silence or the sounds of really unwell people in the background,” she said.
“One young man told me once a banging sound had gone on for 24 hours – another prisoner had been banging on the walls for 24 hours.”
“They don’t have access to any rehabilitation, they don’t get to go to school, they don’t get to learn, they don’t get access to mental health practitioners,” she said.
“It breaks people.”