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Too young to shave, but old enough for solitary

A painting of a prisoner in a dark cell with his back to the viewer holding on to the prison bars
A painting of a prisoner in a dark cell with his back to the viewer holding on to the prison bars
David Fathi,
Director, National Prison Project
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May 3, 2012

As any parent knows, teenagers are different than adults. This common-sense observation is backed by hard scientific evidence; we know that an adolescent’s brain continues to grow and develop well into his or her twenties. The fact that teenagers’ brains are still developing makes them especially vulnerable to trauma of all kinds, including the trauma of social isolation and sensory deprivation.

That’s why the leading American child psychiatry association just approved a policy statement opposing the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities for juveniles. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry represents over 7,500 child and adolescent psychiatrists and other interested physicians.

This groundbreaking policy statement from adolescent psychiatry experts comes not a moment too soon. While recent settlements in ACLU lawsuits in Montana and Mississippi include limits on solitary confinement for youth, the practice remains alarmingly widespread, with thousands of persons under 18 held in solitary on any given day, in juvenile facilities as well as in adult jails and prisons. I remember the first time I visited a 13-year-old boy in solitary in an adult prison – his voice hadn’t changed yet and he was too young to shave, but that didn’t save him from being locked alone in a cell for 23 hours a day.

Solitary confinement can be harmful for people of any age, but it’s especially damaging to youth. The 17-year-old plaintiff in the ACLU’s Montana case tried to kill himself several times while in solitary confinement in an adult prison. And while youth in solitary are a relatively small percentage of the total population of juvenile facilities, they account for more than half of the suicides.

Fortunately efforts are underway to end this inhumane and destructive practice. In California, Sen. Leland Yee introduced a bill to ban solitary confinement for juveniles except in the most exceptional circumstances. The bill attracted considerable support, but eventually failed to pass out of committee. And in West Virginia, the Division of Juvenile Services recently announced a state-wide ban on the practice.

It’s time for the United States to catch up to the rest of the world. The United Nations has established minimum standards for the protection of youth in correctional facilities, which specifically prohibit solitary confinement. Just last year, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded that solitary confinement can in some circumstances amount to torture, and called for a complete ban on solitary for juveniles.

Virtually all incarcerated juveniles will eventually be released back into society. It’s in everyone’s interest that they be prepared to live law-abiding lives, not further damaged and traumatized by solitary confinement.

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