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End solitary confinement of juvenile inmates in Minnesota

Social isolation causes real and lasting damage — and juveniles are particularly susceptible to the damaging impact of seclusion.

REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Solitary confinement consists of placing an inmate alone in a locked room or cell, with minimal or no contact with people other than staff of the correctional facility. A variety of terms are currently used to describe solitary confinement, especially when discussing detained youth. Seclusion. Secure Housing Unit. Special Intervention Unit. Disciplinary Room Time. Segregation. Room confinement. Medical isolation. Reflection time. However, in the eyes of a child locked alone in an empty cell for days at a time, the name we use for these confinement practices doesn’t really matter. Though there is a growing national movement to reduce or eliminate solitary confinement of juvenile inmates, and though 21 states have prohibited punitive solitary confinement, Minnesota continues to allow it.

We may try to convince ourselves that the kid must have deserved it – that solitary confinement is a proportionate punishment for a serious infraction. But across America today, punitive solitary confinement is often routinely imposed for trivial acts such as forgetting to make a bed, leaving a cell door open, or being in someone else’s cell. In extreme cases, solitary confinement has even been used to cover up brutality by correctional staff. For example, a 2014 investigation of Rikers Island by the United States Department of Justice [PDF] included the account of an adolescent male being viciously assaulted by five correctional officers after making a “smart remark” and subsequently receiving 75 days in punitive segregation (a resulting lawsuit was settled).

Real, lasting damage

Social isolation causes real and lasting damage. According to Laura Rovner (2015), “… neuroscience research has increasingly demonstrated that the harmful effects of solitary confinement appear not only in the reports of those who are forced to endure it, but also in brain imagery and testing, which reveal that changes can occur in the brain after even (comparatively) brief periods of solitary confinement. In short, ‘we now know that prolonged social deprivation has the capacity to literally change who we are, physically as well as mentally.’ ”

Juveniles are particularly susceptible to the damaging impact of seclusion. Elevated stress hormones can inhibit the normal development of the adolescent brain, notably in regions linked to impulse control. Isolation of juvenile inmates has negative public safety consequences, does not decrease violence, and likely increases recidivism (Council for Juvenile Correctional Administrators, 2015).

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The long-term effects of solitary confinement are daunting. After living through extended periods of solitary confinement, reintegration to the outside world can become an emotional impossibility for juvenile inmates (Harvard Crimson, 2015). A tragic example is the recent suicide of Kalief Browder, likely influenced by his imprisonment as a juvenile at Rikers Island (waiting for a trial that never happened, based on charges that were ultimately dropped), where he spent about two years in solitary confinement.

In some cases solitary confinement can rapidly lead to catastrophic outcomes. A 2009 report by the United States Department of Justice found that a majority of juvenile inmate suicide victims had previously experienced room confinement, and fully half of them committed suicide while in room confinement. For these reasons, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry officially opposes solitary confinement.

Too often, relevant context is ignored

Rachel Wannarka
Rachel Wannarka

Juveniles who have mental health issues or who have a history of trauma are even more vulnerable to the damaging effects of solitary confinement. Too often we see and address only the immediate behavior without considering relevant context. A 2014 study of 64,000 juvenile offenders in Florida found they suffered “disturbingly high rates” of adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse or neglect, and recommended trauma-informed care and intervention within the juvenile justice system. A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found adolescent inmates to have psychiatric diagnoses at a rate 10 times greater than non-incarcerated adolescents. Solitary confinement further hurts these already wounded children.

Solitary confinement of juveniles also interferes with their social development, physical exercise, and schooling. Federal law mandates that inmates receive daily large-muscle exercise and special education services; in practice, these requirements are often abrogated for isolated juveniles. Solitary confinement is sometimes claimed or genuinely intended to protect rather than punish inmates (for example if they are suicidal or are being targeted for violence) but the same physical, psychological, and developmental damage can still occur. Because of budgetary constraints, facilities often lack sufficient staffing and resources to provide for vulnerable inmates in their care, and resort to seclusion rather than more humane but labor-intensive support services. 

Jason Sole
Jason Sole

Reform is spreading state by state with positive outcomes. When Ohio recently drastically reduced the use of solitary confinement, violence by juvenile inmates also fell. New York City earlier this year ended the practice of solitary confinement for inmates 21 or younger. A 2012 report [PDF] by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch recommended that states flatly prohibit the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities for any purpose, and further called on juvenile correctional facilities to publish data on rates and durations around any use of segregation or isolation.

Solitary confinement arguably conflicts with the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. We as a society must evaluate solitary confinement for juveniles in light of recent advances in brain science and against (to quote former Supreme Court Justice Warren) “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

State legislation is needed; models abound

Minnesota should pass legislation defining confinement practices that amount to solitary confinement and then prohibiting it for juveniles, except for strictly limited intervals under legitimate emergency conditions. A model is provided by existing laws in several other states, and by the federal MERCY Act introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, with bipartisan support (and now incorporated into a proposed Sentencing Reform Act). All juvenile correctional facilities operating within Minnesota should be required to have staff trained in trauma-informed care and practicing positive reinforcement. We must have transparency in how many juveniles are isolated, for how long, and for what reasons, and we must have accountability for any facilities and staff that violate these policies and laws.

Jason Sole is the Criminal Justice Reform chair of the Minneapolis NAACP, and a criminal justice educator, Hamline University/Metropolitan State University. Rachel Wannarka, Ph.D., is a member of the Minneapolis NAACP Criminal Justice Reform Task Force and St. Paul Federation of Teachers. She is a special education teacher, Boys Totem Town, St. Paul Public Schools.


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