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Why Solitary Confinement Hurts Juveniles More Than Adults

New York City is ending its use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders. Here's the science behind the decision.
Rikers Island. (Photo: Tim Rodenberg/Flickr)

Rikers Island. (Photo: Tim Rodenberg/Flickr)

In a long-awaited move, New York City’s Department of Correction has finally decided to end its practice of putting teenaged offenders in solitary confinement cells. Currently, fights and other infractions can land kids in solitary for weeks, months, sometimes years. In an internal memo obtained by theNew York Times last week, Joseph Ponte, the city’s new correction commissioner, called the decision “the first round of changes [to] meet our shared commitment to a safe, just and age-appropriate correctional setting.”

A report this August by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan had criticized the use of solitary confinement for inmates under 18, calling it “excessive and inappropriate.” The practice should end by the first day of 2015, a change that will affect no small number of kids. “About 300 of the 11,500 daily inmates in city jails are 16 and 17 years old,” according to the Associated Press, citing Department of Correction figures. “Of the roughly 530 inmates in solitary on any given day, around 50 of them are teens.”

At the heart of criticism of harsh punishments for teenage offenders is the belief that their level of culpability is fundamentally different than that of adult offenders, and so should be punished differently, too. Their minds and their morals are still actively under development—and for much longer than we previously had thought.

In a forthcoming article in the Iowa Law Review, in which she argues that Iowa should ban solitary confinement for juveniles, Lisa Castillo writes that only in the past 10 or 15 years have developments in MRI imaging allowed us to see the extent of that difference:

This advancement has allowed scientists to safely track the development of the brain from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. This research led scientists to discover that adolescent brains are much more underdeveloped than what had been previously believed. The frontal lobe of the brain, which regulates judgment, impulsivity, and emotions, undergoes the most change during adolescence and is the last area to mature. In fact, the brain does not fully develop until the early twenties.

Teenagers are capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, Castillo continues, but they are less likely to be able to control their impulses. This science has gradually made its way into the legal realm, too. She points out three major recent Supreme Court cases that, citing this type of research, have made important distinctions between the sentencing of adults and juveniles convicted of crimes, and have ruled certain sentences for juveniles to be cruel and unusual.

But teenagers are not made up of disembodied brains and random impulses; environments and experiences play a huge part in determining behavior. Here, too, there is cause for empathy. A recent study in the Journal of Juvenile Justice has come to the relatively unsurprising (but still important) conclusion that juvenile offenders have typically had one or more “adverse childhood experiences,” and that prison policy should begin take that into consideration.

"The facilities on Rikers are not suitable for holding and supervising adolescents ... and exposing young offenders to the culture of violence that exists on the Island—especially during their formative years—can have detrimental lifelong effects."

The study looks at the cases of over 64,000 juvenile offenders in the Florida prison system, asking them about these experiences in their childhoods: “emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect, violent treatment towards mother, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, and having an incarcerated household member.” These same adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) were determined in the late 1990s to be major risk factors for the leading causes of death in adults, but Michael Baglivio and his co-authors of the Journal of Juvenile Justice article applied them here to “justice-involved youth.”

The researchers found that ACEs increased a teenager’s chances of being involved in the justice system, and that they also made him or her more likely to re-offend. (The most common experiences from the list above were the same for girls and boys in the Florida corrections system: family violence, parental separation or divorce, and household member incarceration.) “Furthermore, and more importantly,” the authors write, “we show that juvenile offenders are a special population with a particularly high rate of ACEs. This finding has profound policy implications that underline the need to screen for and address ACEs as early as possible....”

This is not to say that all juvenile offenders have had horrible childhoods, or that having bad things happen to them should let them off the hook for crimes they commit. But this study’s findings underscore the idea that, as much as the criminal justice system as a whole is (ideally) meant to be a rehabilitative, reformative, and educational process for adults, it has an even greater responsibility to adolescents and teens.

Aside from whatever factors and life choices may have led juveniles to end up in custody in the first place, another major argument against solitary confinement for juveniles also rests on the lasting impact these punishments can have on young brains and bodies. It’s even more important for still-developing kids to be physically active, and to be social, than it is for adults, and solitary severely limits both of those.

As an American Civil Liberties Union report last year put it, “Psychologically, children are different from adults, making their time spent in isolation even more difficult and the developmental, psychological, and physical damage more comprehensive and lasting.”

New York’s decision makers seem to have gotten that message. In a statement relayed by the Times, Elizabeth Crowley, the chairwoman of the city council committee that oversees city jails, wrote:

The facilities on Rikers are not suitable for holding and supervising adolescents ... and exposing young offenders to the culture of violence that exists on the Island—especially during their formative years—can have detrimental lifelong effects.

For all the studies and statistics out there, no hypothetical case against the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders is as compelling as the story of a lived experience. Jennifer Gonnerman wrote a frankly infuriating piece on this topic for theNew Yorker that came out right at the same time as the news from Rikers.

The article told the story of Kaleif Browder, a 16-year-old boy from the Bronx who was arrested for a robbery he didn’t commit, and then spent nearly three years in Rikers awaiting a trial that never happened. He spent almost all of that time in an un-air-conditioned solitary confinement cell: scared, depressed, hungry, and sweating. Twice he tried to kill himself. Browder’s case was eventually dismissed, but not until he had given up a thousand days of his life in that box. And he hasn’t been the same since.

Daniel Selling, who was the executive director of mental health for New York City’s jails before he quit, told Gonnerman: “I think the department became severely addicted to solitary confinement.... It’s a way to control an environment that feels out of control—lock people in their cell. Adolescents can’t handle it. Nobody could handle that.”