“I was sent to solitary confinement for giving my crying friend a hug. They called it “inappropriate sexual contact.””
“I was sent to solitary confinement for singing happy birthday to my best friend.”
“I was sent to solitary confinement for picking a flower.”
“I was sent to solitary confinement for saving a cricket.”
Last June, I went to a juvenile prison in Texas to interview girls. There was one question I asked each girl, which consistently elicited an animated reaction: What is the silliest reason that has gotten you sent to solitary confinement? Their responses, most of which were similar to those above, were especially disturbing to hear because almost all of the girls had suffered past abuse and sexual trauma, many have committed self-harm, and some have even attempted suicide. Subjecting girls like these to solitary confinement is invariably damaging, and can be fatal. It’s amazing to see that these girls can recognize the absurdity of this practice, while administrators, juvenile corrections officers, and even social workers, can have it so wrong.
In June 2008, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit challenging inhumane practices at the Brownwood State School, a youth prison in central Texas. Girls at Brownwood are regularly placed in punitive solitary confinement in oppressively cold, concrete cells, that are empty except for a metal slab intended to be used as a bed. Solitary confinement is imposed for minor misbehavior, for self-harm or for expressing a desire to commit self-harm, and can be brief or can last for days, weeks and even months. It’s hard to imagine a more destructive reaction to a child in crisis, but it’s the norm. Unfortunately, these practices are not limited to Brownwood, or Texas, for that matter.
There are currently more than 14,000 girls incarcerated in the United States, a number that has been rapidly increasing in recent decades. Most of these girls are arrested for minor, nonviolent offenses and probation violations. Locked up under the guise of rehabilitation, girls nationwide — the vast majority of whom have been sexually/physically abused — are subjected to punitive solitary confinement, routine strip searches, and other forms of abuse. Meanwhile, they are denied the essential mental health care, education, and social services they need. Far from helping girls cope with the trauma they have suffered, youth prisons’ use of solitary confinement only retraumatizes them and further impedes their rehabilitation.
This is abundantly clear in a recent collection of testimonies from girls imprisoned in Texas juvenile institutions printed by Harper’s magazine this week. On newsstands today, the May 2010 issue features excerpts from ACLU interviews with incarcerated teenage girls. A few noteworthy excerpts include a girl who states that her crying is treated as “problem behavior,” another who was locked in a solitary confinement cell surrounded by her own vomit for over 24 hours, and perhaps even more disturbing, the following testimony from a girl in solitary confinement:
“A staff [member] gave me a pill, and he told me he was going to take me to get my meds. We ended up in this dirty room. It had pipes, buckets—it was dusty, it was nasty. I was like, I want to go to sleep, and he was like, You’re not leaving until we have sex. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know to scream, I didn’t know to do none of that stuff. I told him I wasn’t going to lie on that dirty floor, and he was like, Well, just bend over, and so—I didn’t know what he was going to do to me. I don’t know if he could’ve killed me and it would’ve been on the news: We just found a dead teenager at TYC and nobody knows what happened.
— 17-year-old, Marlin Orientation and Assessment Unit
After reading the full collection of experiences, it’s clear that compassionate intervention by responsible adults, and not solitary confinement, is essential for young girls to get their lives together.