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The Justice Department Wants to End Solitary Confinement of Juveniles — For Now

Hundreds of years of history show that solitary confinement is dangerous. While the end of the practice is finally in sight, the next administration could reverse the progress made under President Obama.

By Kate Wheeling


Onondaga County Justice Center. (Photo: Google)

Six juvenile offenders and their parents or guardians brought a class action lawsuit against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office in New York, alleging that, between October of 2015 and August of 2016, dozens of juveniles were subjected to solitary confinement in the Onondaga County Justice Center in Syracuse. In all, the plaintiffs claim to have spent a combined seven and a half years in solitary at the center, during which time they were restricted to a 60-square-foot cell for at least 23 hours a day, with “virtually no contact with others except for adult inmates in neighboring cells who routinely harass and intimidate them,” according to case filings.

On Tuesday, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case, reiterating the department’s position that juveniles should not be subjected to solitary confinement. Such statements are like weightier amicus briefs; in other words, legal filings from the federal government that don’t evaluate the facts of the case but argue for the larger civil rights issues to which the case pertains—for example, the question of whether or not solitary confinement for juveniles is unconstitutional.

In 2016, the department’s Bureau of Prisons banned solitary confinement for juveniles in federal facilities, and issued guidance for state and local correctional centers. Only under rare circumstances in which offenders pose a serious and physical threat does the Department of Justice approve temporarily separating juveniles from other individuals, and any isolation “should be brief, designated as a ‘cool down’ period, and done only in consultation with a mental health professional,” according to one of the department’s guiding principles on restrictive housing.

Isolation has been a part of the American prison system since the very beginning. “Benjamin Franklin advocated it at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia in the 1790s,” says Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and professor at the Wright Institute.

The harmful consequences of solitary confinement have been apparent for nearly as long. An 1890 Supreme Court case found that, in isolation cells:

[a] considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.

Then, the early 19th century, Auburn Prison in upstate New York and Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary adopted solitary confinement. They both then replaced the practice with hard labor after it became clear isolation did little to reform criminals, according to Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, the authors of Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices From Solitary Confinement. In the mid-20th century, solitary confinement made a comeback at the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, Casella and Ridgeway write:

Marion was built to hold “difficult to control” men in the federal prison system, and over the next decade it evolved into the “end of the line” prison for individuals deemed dangerous or disruptive. In 1973, H-Unit at Marion was officially designated the Long-Term Control Unit, with all those held in the unit subjected to around-the-clock solitary confinement and a “behavior modification” program. In the ensuing years, the federal Bureau of Prisons floated several proposals to turn the entire prison into a control unit.

On October 22, 1983, in two separate incidents, two corrections officers at Marion were killed by men held in the Control Unit.

America’s latest love affair with solitary confinement began in the 1990s, after the war on drugs, deinstitutionalization, and cuts in funding for public mental-health services and housing spurred massive overcrowding in the nation’s jails and prisons. Overcrowding, coupled with slashes to rehabilitative and education programming, led to violence on the inside.

“What [corrections administrators] decided is they were going to lock up the worst of the worst,” Kupers says, “that the problem was a few bad apples among the prisoners, so they’re going to stick them in cold storage and leave them there.”

“All the aspects of harm of solitary confinement are intensified in adolescents.”

There’s an added layer of complexity for juveniles in adult prisons, as isolation often provides the only safe space in the facility from older, predatory inmates. “They put them in the adult isolation unit, and since they’re in their own cell they say, ‘well they’re safe there,’” Kupers says. “Well, the isolation is harmful for them.”

More harmful, in fact, than it is to their adult cellmates. In recent years, the courts have begun to listen to neuroscience studies that show the potential harm solitary confinement could have on a still-developing adolescent brain; the prefrontal cortex — the seat of our reasoning, judgment, and impulse control — doesn’t come fully online until adulthood, which has led the justice system to conclude that kids cannot be held to the same punitive standards as adults for their criminal actions. The Supreme Court has banned both the death penalty and life without parole for juveniles, not just because they may be less blameworthy, but also because their underdeveloped brains are also more susceptible to rehabilitative efforts.

Yet juveniles’ ability to change for the better also leaves them more susceptible to the dangerous side effects of isolation. “All the aspects of harm of solitary confinement are intensified in adolescents,” Kupers says. Having spent decades interviewing people in solitary confinement, Kupers has identified severalsymptoms that tend to appear in all inmates subjected to solitary: anxiety, depression, anger, compulsive acts, and sleep and memory problems. “A lot of them tell me they don’t read because they can’t remember what they read a few pages ago,” Kupers says.

Isolation is also a risk factor for suicide. Roughly half of all successful suicides in prison are committed by the small percentage of inmates in solitary, according to Kupers. “Those are just the symptoms that relatively stable people report,” he says. “People who suffer from, or are prone to, a mental illness will have an exacerbation of the mental illness.”

In addition, the majority of juvenile offenders have already been through some sort of traumatic experience by the time they are incarcerated—physical or sexual abuse, or the death of a friend or loved one, for example—further increasing their sensitivity to trauma, as Lauren Kirchnerreported for Pacific Standard in 2014.

But the tides are turning against solitary confinement. Now, the momentum is heading for criminal justice reform that shortens sentences for offenders, shrinks prison populations, and beefs up rehabilitation and education on the inside. “That’s the winning formula today,” Kupers says. “There’s a growing consensus about that in corrections, and particularly for juveniles.”

While the Department of Justice can’t ban solitary confinement outright in state prisons or local jails, the administration does set the tone through the bully pulpit. The Obama administration, for example, adamantly opposed solitary confinement. The attorney general does have the authority to investigate and take action if juveniles’ constitutional rights are being violated, and, under the Obama administration, the Civil Rights Divisions took advantage of this authority to investigate the use of solitary confinement on juveniles in Alabama, Mississippi, Baltimore, and New York City jails and detention centers, to name a few. The department reached agreements with both the Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island and the state of Ohio to reduce or eliminate solitary for youthful offenders.

This progress will be under threat under the incoming administration. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to take a more old-school, tough-on-crime position. Under his administration, the Department of Justice’s efforts to end solitary confinement will likely wane. But it’s Trump’s stance on immigration that could do the most damage. The president-elect has been vocal about his plans to try to deport millions of immigrants, who will await deportation proceedings in detention centers. Once such centers reach capacity, the overflow is taken up by local jails and prisons.

A sharp rise in the number of immigrants in detention could lead to the same kind of overcrowded conditions that state and local corrections officials have worked so hard to reverse in recent years — the very conditions that gave rise to the latest cycle of solitary confinement.