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Solitary confinement for children is torture

young boy

Richard Ross Photography

“Between June 18 and August 4, Abu Zubaydah spent 47 days in isolation, part of a CIA plan to break his resistance.”  This short excerpt from the full CIA Torture Report that recently went viral, highlights one case in which the CIA utilized torture techniques to obtain information after 9/11. During this period, a primary method used to extract information or confessions was holding detainees in solitary confinement for days on end, which caused inmates to experience intense hallucinations and despair. When this report went viral, the nation reacted with outrage and disappointment at this horrific and cruel use of torture. 

Yet according to the American Civil Liberties Union, this same technique is practiced with thousands of American youth in prisons across the country every single day. Young people are often placed in solitary confinement as punishment, and in some instances, to protect them from adults.  A child in solitary is left alone in a cell, often as small as seven feet by seven feet, for upwards of 22 hours a day.  If they are lucky, they will receive one hour in an outside cage-like cell, also alone.  “It changes you. It hurts you. It makes you depressed. It makes you want to act out. It makes you angry. There is no rehabilitation,” stated one young person who was in solitary confinement for nine months.

As we are learning from the release of the Torture Report, solitary confinement wreaks profound neurological and psychological damage, causing depression, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, suicidal impulses, paranoia, anxiety, and anger. Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian wrote that, “Even a few days of solitary confinement will predictably shift the EEG pattern towards an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium. Kids need a high level of interaction and solitary confinement stunts their growth and development. It prevents them from being educated and participating in stimulating recreational activities that would help ease the transition after release.”

Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, has been studying the psychological effects of solitary confinement for approximately 30 years. He explained that young people are particularly vulnerable because they are still in crucial stages of development—socially, psychologically, and neurologically. “These traumatic experiences can interfere with and damage these essential developmental processes, and the damage may be irreparable.”

After touring New York City’s troubled Rikers Island jail complex for the first time since taking office on December 17, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to end the longstanding practice of putting 16- and 17-year-old inmates who break jailhouse rules in solitary confinement. It is YSRP’s hope that more prisons will follow suit to stop treating young people with methods considered by many to be torture, and instead do more to foster positive behavior. This can be accomplished by employing evidence-based and therapeutic practices that address the mental health needs of young people during this critical time in development. YSRP agrees with the findings in a recent op-ed published by the New York Times that stated that subjecting young people to solitary confinement “does more harm than good” and that “it should end.” 

Although our work focuses on children in adult prisons, many children in solitary confinement have been adjudicated as juveniles and are in juvenile facilities. We are part of a movement to ensure age-appropriate and fair treatment of kids throughout the criminal justice system.  Our Board President, Rebecca Livengood, will be representing kids in solitary confinement in juvenile facilities as a Skadden Fellow next year with the ACLU-NJ, and we hope that her work and the work of so many advocates currently representing children will help bring kids in solitary out of isolation and into environments that are supportive, rehabilitative, and safe.

Written By: Allison Girone

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