A 15-year-old boy was arrested in Tennessee on suspicion of murder. His family could not afford the $500,000 bail, so he had to wait for his trial in prison. In solitary confinement. For about two years.
He had no physical contact with anyone except the guards who occasionally moved him. He received no schooling. The jail took him off an anti-depressant that had been prescribed after he attempted suicide.
He had not even been convicted of a crime.
Prison officials have free rein to send someone to solitary. They don’t even need a good reason. The ACLU reports that transgender prisoners are put in isolation ostensibly for their own protection. The same goes for teenagers held in adult facilities. Solitary confinement is used as punishment for infractions as minor as having unauthorized snacks. Prisoners who report sexual abuse may wind up there. When a prison runs out of beds, it may put new arrivals into solitary, even before they have been convicted of any crime.
Life in the hole can drive people — even adults — mad.
The psychological and emotional effects of solitary confinement can be severe and long-lasting. They include depression, anxiety, visual and auditory hallucinations, insomnia, paranoia, rage, fear, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says that “the majority of suicides in juvenile correctional facilities occur when the individual is isolated or in solitary confinement.” The picture is worse when adult facilities are added to the numbers: juvenile prisoners are “19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population.”
Teens are even more vulnerable to psychiatric injury than adults because their brains are still developing. Since teens’ brains are not yet mature, two American courts decided that they cannot be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. But they are sentenced, without review by a judge or jury, to insanity-inducing isolation.
The United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, which the United States supports, prohibits the solitary confinement of teenagers as a human rights violation.
The solitary confinement of juveniles is evidence that our criminal justice system is broken. Prison is meant to serve three purposes: retribution (so victims and citizens don’t take it upon themselves to form murderous posses), prevention (a prisoner can’t commit crimes while locked up — at least that’s the theory) and rehabilitation. It’s not enough to say that solitary confinement doesn’t advance rehabilitation; to the contrary, it sets juveniles back.
Lisa Guenther, author of a book about solitary confinement, wrote in The New York Times that if “we truly want our prisons to rehabilitate and transform criminal offenders, then we must put them in a situation where they have a chance and an obligation to explain themselves to others, to repair damaged networks of mutual support, and to lend their own unique perspective to creating meaning in the world.” Not to mention a situation that doesn’t make them insane.
Isolating teenage prisoners hurts all of us. One day these kids will leave prison, but they will not leave behind the damage. That will make it harder for them to reintegrate into society. They will burden our already overtaxed mental health system and may be unable to support themselves.
We would all be better off if, while the federal government had them, if it took advantage of the opportunity to make them better people instead of making them crazy. Please sign our petition to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to end the practice of putting juveniles in solitary confinement in federal prisons.
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