In an op-ed published on in The Washington Post, former President Barack Obama stated, “In America, we believe in redemption.” This begs the question: Does America believe in the redemption of kids? The question becomes imperative when you consider that the US has over 70,000 juveniles locked away in solitary confinement, according to the US Department of Justice.
America’s Kids Locked Up in Solitary Confinement
Many of these imprisoned kids are only about 11 years of age, with many of them developing mental illnesses by the time they get released back into society.
A Change.org campaign with 68,845 signatures petitioned President Obama to “end juvenile solitary confinement” as a matter of urgency. Thankfully on January 25, 2016, barely a few months before his departure from office, Obama banned solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons.
That was the way to go. But what about other kids imprisoned in state prisons and county jails?
“We lock up WAY TOO MANY people in our jails.”
…commented Jenny Allison on the Change.org campaign calling for a ban on juvenile solitary confinement:
“Solitary confinement should be reserved for adults who have committed heinous crimes and deserve to be shut away from other people. Juveniles are just that – KIDS. They should NOT be subjected to the same cruel treatment as lifelong criminals.
Placing children in solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment.
Solitary Confinement Turns Kids Into Damaged Goods
The Neurologically & Psychologically Effects of Juvenile Solitary Confinement
Hundreds of prison advocates have disclosed that restricting minors to solitary confinement for minor offenses is cruel and unusual punishment. In fact, Obama cited the “potential for devastating psychological consequences” as one of the reasons he banned solitary confinement for teenagers.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in April 2012 wrote that the neurological and psychological damage of solitary confinement on minors is very profound.
Mental health experts warn that the brains of minors are still developing and the mental tortures of solitary confinement can stunt their development in life. In an article titled How Solitary Confinement Hurts the Teenage Brain experts identified the following “neurological and psychological damage” that solitary confinement has on prison inmates:
- Panic attacks
- Cognitive deficits
- Obsessive thinking
- Risks of suicide and self-harm
- Irreparable personality alterations
Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist at Boston, noted that confining a kid to even a few days of solitary restriction can cause his EEG pattern to shift “towards an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium.”
Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, wrote:
“The experience of isolation is especially frightening, traumatizing, and stressful for juveniles. These traumatic experiences can interfere with and damage these essential developmental processes, and the damage may be irreparable.”
Haney has been in the profession of researching the demoralizing effects of solitary confinement on individual prison inmates.
Kalief Browder: The Face of Thousands of Teens Confined To Solitary Isolation
There are tens of thousands of teens confined to juvenile and adult prisons across the United States. Many never regain their mental balance after release. So often, these young men and women take it upon themselves to end their misery by committing suicide.
However, of particular note is the case of Kalief Browder, a young Black man incarcerated on Rikers Island for almost for three years, with no bail and no trial, for allegedly stealing a backpack.
Obama cited the story of Kalief Browder as one of his motivations for banning solitary confinement of minors in federal prisons. According to him, solitary confinement is:
“…increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results – which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.”
Teen Solitary Confinement: What We Can Learn from the Kalief Browder Story
Raised in The Bronx, Kalief Browder was accused of stealing a backpack at age 16 back in 2010. The backpack was said to contain:
- Credit card
- iPod Touch
- $700 cash
He was placed in solitary confinement for most of the three long years he was at Rikers Island. Browder later reported spending many consecutive months in prison isolation. He also suffered torture at the hands of guards and other inmates.
A judge ordered his release in 2013 because his case lacked evidence and the only witness, his so-called victim, was out of the country.
It must be noted that the case was brought against young Kalief because a Hispanic man pointed him out and said he’d stolen the backpack from him weeks earlier.
Two years after his release, Browder committed suicide by hanging himself at age 22 at his mom’s home in 2015. His advocates say his suicide was the ultimate result of mental and physical abuse suffered in solitary confinement without bail or a trial.
Jennifer Gonnerman, who interviewed Browder after his release said the height of his paranoia was when he threw out his TV set because he feared it was watching him.
What Incarcerated Minors Have to Say about Solitary Confinement
The Human Rights Watch in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a 141-page report titled Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States.
Over 125 kids aged 18 and below in 19 US states were interviewed to share their experiences on solitary confinement. Their experiences are chilling and reflective of how US’ criminal justice system is destroying the future generations of the country.
Paul (surname withheld) said from Michigan:
“It is crushing.
You get depressed and wonder if it is even worth living. Your thoughts turn over to the more death-oriented side of life…I wanted to kill myself.”
Several described how they attempted suicide to obtain release from their misery. Many suffered unprovoked attacks from prison guards and fellow inmates as can be seen in this Kalief Browder video below:
Others simply lack the words to describe how they survived solitary confinement as minors during incarceration.
But one thing is common to all the persons interviewed: solitary confinement is hell and worse than death.
Solitary confinement and any form of isolation are not safe for children and teens. There are a range of alternatives to manage and care for young people safely, without resorting to harmful physical and social isolation practices.