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Solitary Confinement and the Teenage Brain

More than 20 years ago, the international community agreed that teenagers should only be jailed as a last resort—and never placed in solitary confinement.
(Photo: Robert D. Young/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Robert D. Young/Shutterstock)

Kalief Browder began his three-year stay in New York's Rikers Island as a 16-year-old—which included nearly two years in solitary confinement—after being accused of stealing a backpack. He never received a trial. Browder was eventually released, got his G.E.D., and enrolled in community college, but he was troubled after spending so much of his formative years alone in a cell. This past weekend, he committed suicide.

Last year, after New York City officials finally decided to stop putting 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement, Pacific Standard rounded up some of the science in support of the decision. We talked about how new neuroscience technology, such as MRIs, has revealed to researchers that adolescent brains are undergoing even more dramatic—and longer-lasting—development than previously thought. The experiences teens have during this crucial time could affect them through adulthood. The United States legal system has taken this research to mean that juveniles and adults should be sentenced differently.

Long stints in solitary confinement make everybody, young and old, more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and psychosis.

But it didn't take state-of-the-art technology to know that solitary is cruel, unusual, and uniquely harmful for young people. Studies have shown that to be the case for quite some time. Long stints in solitary confinement make everybody, young and old, more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and psychosis. Yet, as one study, published in 1990, found, juvenile offenders are even more vulnerable to those effects. The majority of teens who commit suicide while in correctional facilities do so when they are in solitary confinement, or otherwise isolated.

To be sure, Browder had tried to commit suicide while in solitary, and endured another, failed attempt after he came home, the New Yorker reported in 2014. Following his release, there were several warning signs that not all was right. He was anxious on the subway. Sometimes he paced alone in his room, as he had in solitary. In a more recent article, the New Yorker reported that Browder had thrown away his television, because he felt it was watching him.

In 1990, the United Nations approved a resolution that says juvenile offenders should never be placed "in a dark cell, closed or solitary confinement or any other punishment that may compromise the physical or mental health of the juvenile concerned." That was three years before Browder was even born. He died at 22.