Blog of Rights

Ted Koppel Takes on the Widespread Solitary Confinement of Kids; Our Plea for Change

By Ian Kysel, Aryeh Neier Fellow, ACLU Human Rights Program at 11:22am

Tune into Rock Center with Brian Williams tonight at 10pm/9c on NBC for Ted Koppel's segment on the solitary confinement of kids in adult prisons and jails, featuring Ian Kysel. When you're sufficiently sad and alarmed, please sign this petition to help ensure that kids can never be locked alone in federal facilities.

Ted Koppel is a legendary newsman, and, face-to-face, a formidable interviewer. A few weeks ago, in a warehouse in Brooklyn, I had the opportunity to field an hour of questions from this man who, in 25 years as anchor and managing editor at ABC News' "Nightline," touched every major news story of the day. He has interviewed dictators, covered wars, and helped keep Americans informed about the forces that shaped their lives. And tonight, on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams, Ted Koppel will take on the issue with which I have been engaged for the last two years: the solitary confinement of kids in adult jails and prisons. Ted Koppel was on The Today Show this morning promoting the segment.

In each of the last five years, more than 90,000 kids under age 18 were held in jails and prisons across the United States. Adult facilities routinely use solitary confinement – which means placing someone in physical and social isolation for 22-24 hours a day – to manage kids they hold there. Sadly, given that solitary confinement is widely used in our jails and prisons, this should come as no surprise.

Yet the fact that so many kids are growing up locked down – many alone in solitary confinement – is the dark secret of our criminal justice system. There has been little national attention to the effects of locking these kids alone, but Ted Koppel questioned me about every complex dimension of this issue – without notes.

Researching the solitary confinement of kids in adult facilities over the last two years, as a joint project of the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, I have learned some disturbing things:

Children (even those who have committed serious crimes) are incredibly vulnerable when housed with adults. Many are sexually assaulted; many are beaten. If they act out or fight back, they can be punished with solitary confinement as if they were an adult. I interviewed kids who had spent weeks or months in ‘the hole' as a punishment. Or, yet more perverse, many are sent to solitary confinement by officials who recognize their vulnerability and try to separate them from adults. I interviewed kids who spent months or even more than a year in ‘protective custody.' In short, the problem is widespread.

When I sat down with Ted Koppel, I told him that kids who had been in solitary for days, weeks and months said the experience harmed them. They told me that when they were alone, they lost control of themselves, became depressed, had anxiety attacks, and experienced uncontrollable rage. One told me,

Being in isolation to me felt like I was on an island all alone[,] dying a slow death from the inside out.

Solitary confinement can cause serious mental health problems in healthy adults – it is counter-therapeutic. But kids' brains are still developing – they have even less of a capacity to cope with trauma than adults. Hence a leading mental health group says it should be banned and corrections groups say isolation of kids should be measured in hours, not days. The fact that kids generally get no access to programming or services – or even education – to promote their growth and development raises serious questions about the public safety consequences of its use on children, since studies show that just housing kids in adult facilities can increase recidivism rates.

The intelligent solution is that the practice of holding youth in solitary confinement should be banned nationwide – no matter where youth are held. All forms of isolation and segregation of youth should be strictly limited, regulated, and publicly reported. We should focus on rehabilitating young people so that they can become productive members of society – not treating them in a way that can cause them long-term damage.

It's Time For This to Change. Watch Tonight, and Then Ask Attorney General Eric Holder to Ban the Solitary Confinement of Youth in Federal Custody.

The head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons has told Congress about how stressful (and widespread) solitary confinement is – and has begun reviewing its use on adults. But there is still no federal ban on the solitary confinement of kids.

It's time to change this. Tonight, Ted Koppel will shine a light into the recesses of the criminal justice system -- let's seize this moment and help kids like those profiled tonight on Rock Center. Please sign this petition urging Attorney General Eric Holder to ban the solitary confinement of youth in federal custody.

I am grateful to Ted Koppel for shining a spotlight onto this issue. Now it's up to us to urge Attorney General Eric Holder to make some desperately needed changes.

Get Involved

A Mother's Plea: Stop Solitary Confinement of Children
Tune into Rock Center with Brian Williams tonight at 10pm/9c on NBC for Ted Koppel's segment on the solitary confinement of kids in adult prisons and jails, featuring Ian Kysel. When you're sufficiently sad and alarmed, please sign this petition to help ensure that kids can never be locked alone in federal facilities.

Learn more about solitary confinement and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alertsfollow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Statistics image