The True Horror of Youth in Solitary Confinement

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John LashThe short hallway, maybe 15- or 20- feet long, had gray metal doors on each end. A single fluorescent light dimly lit the scene: flaking beige paint on damp block walls, dull scratched wax on the concrete floor. In the middle of the hall was another metal door, solid and gray as well, but with a small, narrow flap for passing food in and out. The cell was “striped,” a slab of concrete for sleeping, a hole in the floor for bodily functions. The floor sloped towards the center, and was slightly sticky. When the guards closed the door it became an isolation chamber. No sound. No light.

We called this place, “behind the wall.”

It was an isolation cell at a youthful offender prison where I spent a lot of time, a place called Alto, in north Georgia. It was used to break young men down, and it was often where punishment beatings took place as well. Even men who weren’t beaten would eventually begin to crumble. The isolation proved too much for even the toughest of us. Sometimes when the guards opened the door to deliver food you could hear the prisoners screaming, usually begging to be let out, with promises that they would behave. The technique was very effective.

When guys would come back to the regular population after confinement behind the wall they were usually in shock. Their eyes were wide, their ribs were usually visible from lack of food, and white inmates were very pale. They looked like people who had been in an accident or disaster of some sort. They would have to relearn the ability to connect with others in everyday conversation and other skills that we take for granted. They would stare into space, lost in their thoughts.

Today, the use of solitary confinement is increasingly being challenged, especially as it applies to juvenile offenders. Susan Ferriss, of the Center for Public Integrity recently wrote an article that appeared on JJIE. She gives an account of efforts in several states that have resulted in a lessening of the use of solitary confinement for punishment (a.k.a. behavioral management) and more control over its use for protective purposes. She notes that in California a recent proposal to oversee the use of isolation tactics was defeated in the state Assembly, and that the deciding vote to kill the proposal was cast by a recipient of significant campaign contributions from the prison guards union.

West Virginia, Mississippi and Montana have all made recent adjustments to their policies. Experts assert that isolation increases the risks of developing depression, anxiety, and psychosis, and that these risks are increased for adolescents. The American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a policy statement in April calling for strict controls over isolation and compliance with both the Eighth amendment and United Nation’s resolutions governing the treatment of juvenile offenders. A 2009 survey by the Department of Justice found that nearly half of the suicides committed by juveniles in confinement during a four-year period took place in instances of isolation.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel with the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, in the New York Times opinion page writes that in addition to the increased risk of mental illness, “…is the fact that youth frequently enter the criminal justice system with histories of substance abuse, mental illness and childhood trauma, which are only exacerbated by the stark deprivations of solitary confinement. Moreover, in solitary confinement access to programming that might facilitate a youth’s rehabilitation is virtually nonexistent. The results are predictably bad — for the child, for the institution and for public safety.”

It is understandable that in the dysfunctional world of a prison, isolation is often a preferred strategy for dealing with certain issues. Kids with mental illness who are ‘acting out,” kids needing protection and kids who are dangerous to others might all need to be isolated for a period of time. This can’t be the go - to solution in every instance though, nor should it be used as a punishment technique.

We need to discover ways to deal with these problems that keep everyone safe while also addressing the needs of and dangers to those who are isolated.