Letter to the Editor: Education and Mental Health in the Formative Years

Why Solitary Confinement for Juveniles Should Be Banned


Lillian Cain
EVPSA Policy Analyst

The United States’ first experiment in solitary confinement was based on a Quaker belief that the best way to rehabilitate criminals was to isolate them with a bible. After a few decades, this experiment proved to be a failure due to increased rates of suicide, mental illness and inability to function with outside society.

Despite this, today the practice still remains in prisons around the country as a means of housing and isolating inmates who are causing problems within the general prison population, such as harming other inmates or guards. This use of solitary confinement is also prevalent in juvenile detention centers.

Recently, opponents have been making new attempts to ban solitary confinement, especially for youth. In January, President Obama announced his support for federal prison reform that would ban solitary confinement for juveniles and as a punishment for low-level infractions. In California, State Senator Mark Leno introduced Senate Bill 124, which would prohibit people in juvenile detention centers from being placed in solitary confinement due to being a danger to themselves or others as a result of a mental disorder.

Juvenile Detention in California aims to rehabilitate youthful offenders up to the age of 25 by keeping them close to their home community, educating them, and providing other social services. However, solitary confinement restricts access to all of these things, most notably education.

A report done by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch stated that some facilities provided education materials for the youth placed in isolation for “in-cell self-study,” but that two key elements of education — answers to questions and feedback or grades on completed work — were often nonexistent.

For juvenile inmates under the age of 18, this goes against compulsory California laws that require everyone between the ages of 6 and 18 to attend school unless they have graduated high school or passed the California High School Proficiency Exam. Although laws may be different for juvenile inmates versus youth not in jail, not giving proper education to youth in solitary confinement defeats the purpose of sending youth to juvenile detention in order to rehabilitate through education.

Furthermore, putting juveniles in solitary confinement means isolating them during some of their most formative years. During the teenage years and extending into the 20s, the human brain is changing rapidly and is at its most impressionable in terms of learning from and adapting to its environment.

Legally, youth inmates in California cannot spend more than 21 hours per day in solitary confinement, and cannot be held in isolation for more than 90 days. However, an audit performed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that many juvenile detention centers held youth in isolation for much longer than 21 hours a day — some spent only 40 minutes outside their cells.

The consequence of this constant isolation is something that affects inmates of every age, according to interviews of people in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison, located in Northern California near the Oregon border, in 1993.

“Dr. Stuart Grassain found that solitary confinement induces a psychiatric disorder characterized by hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and a litany of other physical and psychological problems,” states Solitary Watch, a project that aims to shed light on the issues of solitary confinement. Other effects included “high rates of anxiety, nervousness, obsessive ruminations, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, as well as dizziness, perspiring hands, and heart palpitations.”

Solitary confinement doesn’t just mean no communication with other people, it also means no physical contact with anyone — no hugs, high fives, friendly jostles, etc. Young people who are still developing and are more vulnerable experience solitary confinement more drastically and are more irreparably harmed than their adult counterparts.

Across the United States, 70,000 kids are in solitary confinement on any given day. The lengths of their stays vary — reports range from less than 72 hours to 800 or more days. Being constantly kept in isolation, for reasons that can include lack of space in the general population or as a preventative safety measure, is not conducive to rehabilitation. Juveniles are 19 times more likely that adults to commit suicide in isolation, and approximately half of all juvenile inmate suicides occur in isolation.

I urge the California State Assembly and Senate to vote for SB 124, as well as for national lawmakers to follow President Obama’s lead in his path toward prison reform. It may be time to ban solitary confinement universally, but we must start with the nation’s juvenile offenders in order to take steps toward properly rehabilitating them and ensuring they will not become repeat offenders.