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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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Other kids are isolated as a form of "protective custody", because they are vulnerable to physical or sexual abuse. Even though they are being locked down "for their own good", many receive no educational or rehabilitative programming while in solitary, and some are barred from seeing their families.

Still, other children are placed in solitary confinement for "treatment" purposes, especially after threatening or attempting suicide – even though isolation has been shown to sharply increase the risk that prisoners will take their own lives.

"There is nothing to do so you start talking to yourself and getting lost in your own little world. It is crushing," said Paul K, who spent 60 days in solitary when he was 14.

"You get depressed and wonder if it is even worth living. Your thoughts turn over to the more death-oriented side of life."

No one knows precisely how many children live in these conditions, since many state and local correctional systems do not keep such data. But the overall rate of solitary confinement in American prisons is thought to be between 3% and 5%, and anecdotal evidence suggests that, in some systems, children may be isolated at even higher rates than adults. Given that nearly 100,000 youth under the age of 18 pass through adult prisons and jails annually, there exists the staggering possibility that thousands of children are spending time in solitary confinement each year.

Liz Ryan, who directs the Campaign for Youth Justice, points out that 20 states have laws requiring that juveniles be kept apart from adult prisoners. Yet most of the nation's 3,000 jails lack dedicated facilities for children – leaving them with no alternative but to place kids in solitary. A majority of people in jail are there awaiting trial, which means many children in solitary have not even been convicted of a crime.

In addition, Ryan said, "A kid could be held in jail not because there is a risk to public safety, but because they don't have the resources to make bail." So the racial and class disparities endemic to the criminal justice system are likely reflected in the population of children languishing in isolation. Ian Kysel said in an interview:

"I think one of the greatest impediments to change is trying to unravel the policy issue that is at the root of this problem: a criminal justice system that treats kids as if adults without providing resources or guidelines for their care,"

For this reason, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union recommend that state and the federal governments "prohibit the housing of adolescents with adults, or in jails and prisons designed to house adults". However, "regardless of how they are charged and held," Kysel says unequivocally:

"We need to ban the solitary confinement of young people across the board. There is simply no reason that a child or adolescent ever needs to be held in a cell, alone, for 22 let alone 24 hours at a stretch."

For this to happen, though, the American public will need to accept what numerous international bodies have already concluded – that solitary confinement is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and clearly rises to the level of torture when levied against vulnerable populations, including children.

"If my story can stop another kid from coming" to solitary confinement, one Florida teen wrote, then, "Hopefully my pain serve[s] some purpose."

 

Jean Casella is a freelance writer, editor and manager of independent print and web-based publications. She is co-editor of Solitary Watch, and in 2012 was named a Soros Justice Media Fellow by the Open Society Institute

James Ridgeway is the author of "Blood in the Face," a book chronicling the far right during the last quarter of the 20th century. He also produced a documentary with the same name with collaborators Anne Bohlen and Kevin Rafferty.