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Kids in Solitary Confinement: America's Official Child Abuse

Thousands of teenagers, some as young as 14 or 15, are routinely subjected by US prisons to psychological torture.
 
 
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Molly J said of her time in solitary confinement:

"[I felt] doomed, like I was being banished … Like you have the plague or that you are the worst thing on earth. Like you are set apart [from] everything else. I guess [I wanted to] feel like I was part of the human race – not like some animal."

Molly was just 16 years old when she was placed in isolation in an adult jail in Michigan. She described her cell as being "a box":

"There was a bed – the slab. It was concrete … There was a stainless steel toilet/sink combo … The door was solid, without a food slot or window … There was no window at all."

Molly remained in solitary for several months, locked down alone in her cell for at least 22 hours a day.

No other nation in the developed world routinely tortures its children in this manner. And torture is indeed the word brought to mind by a shocking report released today by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union. Growing Up Locked Down documents, for the first time, the widespread use of solitary confinement on youth under the age of 18 in prisons and jails across the country, and the deep and permanent harm it causes to kids caught up in the adult criminal justice system.

Ian Kysel, author of the 141-page report, interviewed or corresponded with more than 125 young people who had spent time in solitary as children in 19 states. To cope with endless hours of extreme isolation, sensory deprivation and crippling loneliness, Kysel learned that some children made up imaginary friends or played games in their heads. Some hid under the covers and tried to sleep as much as possible, while others found they could not sleep at all.

"Being in isolation to me felt like I was on an island all alone dying a slow death from the inside out," a California teen wrote in a letter to Human Rights Watch.

One young woman, who spent three months in solitary in Florida when she was 15, described becoming a "cutter" while in isolation:

"I like to take staples and carve letters and stuff in my arm … Each letter means something to me. It is something I had lost."

She started by carving into her arm the first letter of her mother's name. Another girl who cut herself in solitary said, "because it was the only release of my pain."

In fact, solitary confinement has been shown to cause severe pain and psychological damage to the tens of thousands of adults who endure it every day in American prisons. On children, the report states, the practice has a "distinct and particularly profound impact." Because of "the special vulnerability and needs of adolescents, solitary confinement can be a particularly cruel and harmful practice when applied to them." This is all the more true because for many of these kids, "developmental immaturity is compounded by mental disabilities and histories of trauma, abuse, and neglect."

Yet, prisons and jails commonly use isolation as punishment for violating prison rules, including both violent and nonviolent infractions. One boy who entered a Colorado jail at age 15 said the guards doled out stints in solitary for crimes that would, in any other setting, be deemed normal adolescent behavior:

"15 days for not making the bed; 15 days for not keeping the cell door open; 20 or 25 days for being in someone else's cell."

On Rikers Island in New York City, more than 14% of adolescents between 16 and 18 spent some period in "disciplinary segregation". This despite the fact that nearly half of all adolescents on Rikers have been found to have a "diagnosed mental disorder".