"For Their Own Protection": Children in Long-Term Solitary Confinement

“Why lock somebody up while you're locked up? You’re trying to kill their spirit even more," says Michael Kemp, describing his six-month stay in solitary confinement at age 17.

Solitary confinement was once a punishment reserved for the most-hardened, incorrigible criminals. Today, it is standard practice for tens of thousands of juveniles in prisons and jails across America. Far from being limited to the most violent offenders, solitary confinement is now used against perpetrators of minor crimes and children who are forced to await their trials in total isolation. Often, these stays are prolonged, lasting months or even years at a time.

Widely condemned as cruel and unusual punishment, long-term isolation for juveniles continues because it’s effectively hidden from the public. Research efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition have struggled to uncover even the most basic facts about how the United States punishes its most vulnerable inmates.

How can a practice be both widespread and hidden? State and federal governments have two effective ways to prevent the public from knowing how deep the problem goes.

The first has to do with the way prisons operate. Sealed off from most public scrutiny, and steeped in an insular culture of unaccountability, prisons are, by their very nature, excellent places to keep secrets. Even more concealed are the solitary-confinement cells, described by inmates as “prisons within prisons.” With loose record-keeping and different standards used by different states, it’s almost impossible to gather reliable nation-wide statistics.

The second method is to give the old, horrific punishment a new, unobjectionable name. Make the torture sound friendly, with fewer syllables and pleasant language. This way, even when abuse is discovered, it appears well-intentioned and humane.

So American prisons rarely punish children with prolonged solitary confinement. Instead, they administer seclusion and protective custody. Prison authorities don't have to admit that “administrative segregation” is used to discipline children. Just the opposite, actually. It’s all being done “for their own protection.”

Seclusion? Protecting children? Who could argue with that?

For starters, there is Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture. Americans are accustomed to the U.N. investigating incidents of prisoner abuse in other countries – which Mendez has done in faraway places like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But increasingly, his inquiries are focused on American prisons.

Mendez spoke publicly about Bradley Manning’s deplorable treatment in solitary confinement. Now he is calling on the United States to ban isolation for minors, which he considers, “cruel, unusual, and degrading punishment.” It's a recommendation he shares with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology. 

The ACLU report, Growing Up Locked Downis one of the few detailed, comprehensive examinations available. This devastating and detailed look at solitary confinement for minors has led to this online petition that will be presented to Attorney General Eric Holder in October 2013.

Because the prison system is so opaque, reform has been slow in coming. A congressional hearing on solitary confinement, chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) last year, heard testimony from mental health experts, questioned the director of federal prisons, and brought a replica of a solitary confinement cell onto the Senate floor. In recent years, seven states – Maine, Connecticut, West Virginia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Alaska – have enacted laws to restrict the use of punitive isolation on young people. As awareness of the magnitude of the problem grows, more reforms are likely to follow.

If we believe that juveniles are inherently less responsible for their actions than adults - and more susceptible to rehabilitation - then it follows that their punishments should be less severe.

Given the severity of the punishment, prohibiting solitary confinement for young people is a first step. The greatest challenge remains demanding greater transparency from a prison system that wields total control over its most vulnerable inmates.

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  • dirty dave||

    Why do members of Western Culture regard solitary as cruel and unusual, whereas solitary meditation for months, or even years, is considered ideal in other cultures religious practice?

    Considering that homosexual rape is so prevalent in prisons, if I had a son or daughter there, I'd feel better if they were segregated from the general population.

    Having made the 2 points above, any time a gov employee can wield power over a minor, zero tolerance for abuse is called for. Assumption of the worst based on human nature is the guiding principal.

  • Square||

    Solitary meditation by a monk is voluntary. It takes years and years of discipline to get to the point where you can do that for months without going insane.

    Taking a kid with behavioral problems and locking him in a box alone for a couple of months is something different.

    It's sort of like saying "the Catholic religion idealizes the ability to suffer physically with calm patience, so why is it such a big deal that I like to beat people with my big board covered with rusty nails?"

  • affenkopf||

    Also: The solitary monk always knows he can stop meditating and get back to seeing people. Someone in solitary confinement can't.

  • ||

    This is a great question, dirty dave, which concerned me during the making of this video. Having lived in Nepal during the early part of my career, I had the experience of meeting (and meditating with) monks in the ascetic Buddhist traditions.

    To these monks, intense solitude isn't a punishment. Far from it. They took it as an opportunity to live more deeply within themselves and within the world.

    So does that mean that one man's torture is another man's enlightenment? Not exactly; that's a false equivalence. I think Square is on to something when he says that it's a matter of choice. Individual choice makes the difference between heaven and hell on earth.

    Which makes it a libertarian subject that's worthy of further exploration at Reason. If this video about solitary confinement generates enough public interest, I might just produce a sequel that addresses the subject of solitude, torture and individual free will.

  • Zeb||

    I don't think it is a great question at all. It is a very silly question with a very obvious answer. Solitary meditation or religious vows of silence, solitude, poverty or whatever are things that people do voluntarily and can stop doing voluntarily. The fact that some people do similar things voluntarily is totally irrelevant. Some people get off on being burned or tied up or beaten. That doesn't make it OK to go around doing those things to people who haven't asked you to do that to them. This is no different. Consent makes all the difference.

  • John Galt||

    Coercion and non-coercion lie worlds apart.

  • Rasilio||

    No it is a rather stupid question anot not just because of the voluntariness of the isolation but rather because of the goals.

    To the ascetic monks of any religion who seek isolation the specific goal is to set themselves aside from human culture and civilization with no intent to ever reintegrate with it.

    With a prisoner in solitary confinement, in almost all cases reintegration into society is an end goal. This is especially true with children.

    The problem is long term isolation makes such integration difficult and eventually if carried out long enough impossible

  • Tonio||

    Why do members of Western Culture regard solitary as cruel and unusual, whereas solitary meditation for months, or even years, is considered ideal in other cultures religious practice?

    Bad question.

    Rather than starting with the (implied) premise that western culture is somehow wrong, simply accept that in most human cultures isolation from others is regarded as undesirable. Yes, there are religious communities (eastern and otherwise) that practice isolation, but these are not the norm even within their own societies.

  • Square||

    In fact, the western prison system was conceived by Quakers who wanted to steer the justice system away from corporal punishment / public shaming to something more resembling forced monastic contemplation.

    Like the Buddhists they believed that "solitary meditation" was a valuable spiritual exercise that would calm troubled souls.

    We found, however, that forcing a troubled soul into solitary meditation is an ineffective means of spiritualizing them.

    A certain faction also realized "we can torure people without even paying attention to them? Awesome!"

  • d_remington||

    Also, the purpose of the isolation is completely different. Btw, do eastern cultures lock those they intend to isolate into rooms? I thought most of this isolation took place by walking into the mountains or forests or some such.

  • Brian||

    We do it all for the children.

  • Creeper||

    anyone who is in a position to give out solitary confinement sentences should have to spend a week in one first. they'll think twice about giving out such a horrible sentence afterwards. it should only be given to those who are a danger to the rest of the population.....

  • anon||

    Nothing says "protection" like willfully destroying someone's sanity.

  • Square||

    They come out immune to future mental harm.

  • John||

    Even as cynical and well read as I am on these sorts of issues, I had no idea this was occurring. This article makes me want to vomit.

    If I didn't know about it, 99% of America doesn't know about it either. We have the worst media in the history of civilization. Don't tell me that this story wouldn't sell. Kids in solitary confinement for years? If that is not ripe for muckraking and yellow journalism I don't know what is. And not a fucking peep about this from the major media. Better to talk about how fabulous Michelle Obama is or how racist the evil Rethuglicans are than make this the national scandal it should be. There is only so much air time and covering for Obama's sorry ass has to take priority and requires a hell of a lot these days I guess.

  • anon||

    I think it was Francisco that I was telling yesterday that the majority of people are easily moved by any random appeal to emotion; "for teh childrunz" is not random, it's probably the most effective.

  • anon||

    For instance: "The child was a victim of rape; we had to keep him in solitary to prevent him from being raped again, because he's so young."

    And 99% of people would accept that as legit, completely disregarding any facts of the effects of prolonged confinement on anyone's sanity.

  • John||

    Sure, if the media did propaganda for the cops, people might accept it. But that is not what I am talking about. Again, if people think every kid in juvenile deserves to rot, no one would have cared about the judges in PA taking kick backs to send kids to jail. They cared a lot and those clowns were pretty national pariahs when that story broke. No one came to those judges' defense or said it was no big deal.

  • Andrew S.||

    You really think so? I'm guessing that a large majority would be of the "the little punks deserve it" mindset. And a portion of those against it would probably be so because it would deprive the "criminals" of the corrective rape that Americans seem to enjoy so much.

  • John||

    I think so. And not if it was done properly. You pick out the worst cases involving the most minor offenses.

    Look at how angry people got over the case in Pennsylvania where the juvenile judge was in bed with the private prison company. People were infuriated over that. They didn't say "well the punks deserved it anyway".

  • sarcasmic||

    People don't care until it's their child, and by then it's too late.

  • John||

    No. They would care. They just don't know. Who would they know? We talk about Sandra Fluke's latest abortion or Miley Cyrus, you know important newsworthy stuff.

  • sarcasmic||

    I disagree. It's the same idea as the war on drug users. Most people support it until someone close to them gets caught in the system, and then they realize that the war is worse than the drugs. Kids in solitary for their own protection? Nothing wrong with that. Until you watch your own kid go insane.

  • John||

    They support it because they have no idea what is going on. How many people actually know about minimum mandatory sentences or how horrible and long federal sentences for minor offenses are? Very few. I guarantee you that 90% of America thinks that drug dealers get off light in court and only spend a few months or years in prison if at all. They only know what they see on TV. They have no idea that people go to prison for 20 and 25 years. If they did, they would be appalled. The American public by and large is not made up of monsters. People are generally moral and have a sense of proportion and justice. It is just that the fanatics who don't set the policy and the rest of the country is totally ignorant of what is going on.

  • Square||

    You hit the nail on the head: "They only know what they see on TV."

    Prisons in most people's minds are the places they see on CSI. They hear in the abstract that the prison system has "problems," but their mental image is the nice, clean, well-regulated places with good medical services that they feel prisons SHOULD be (and how they're shown in TV), not the overpopulated anarchic rat cages manned by sadists that they really are.

    There's a great Mark Twain line to the effect that if you want to see examples of the lowest and basest forms of the human species, visit a prison. You'll also see prisoners there.

  • sarcasmic||

    not the overpopulated anarchic rat cages manned by sadists that they really are.

    Really? Because there are shows out there that are filmed right inside these places that show how terrible they are, from the point of view of the jailers. Kinda like COPS. And they dehumanize the people inside, just as COPS dehumanized the people the pigs interact with. People love that shit. "Hey, look at that gang banger get his ass kicked! Awesome!"

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Locked Up is the only thing worth watching on MSNBC.

  • sarcasmic||

    Then there are shows like Scared Straight where caring tormentors terrorize their victims for their own good. No, John. I think you're wrong. I think the general public really likes how the system treats people, because they aren't people. They've been dehumanized. They don't care until it's someone close to them. An actual human.

  • Invisible Finger||

    I think the general public really likes how the system treats people, because they aren't people. They've been dehumanized.

    This is exactly correct. Americans are no different than anyone else; the idea that most Germans would be appalled at the idea of Aushwitz ignores the systematic dehumanization of Jews years before the first boxcar was loaded. Americans are appalled at the dehumanization of Jews, but we dehumanize our own subsets of people (blacks for centuries, then homosexuals, then drug users, etc.).

    And of course the flip-side of dehumanization is the exaltation of other subsets of society. Basically, if there is exaltation going on, there by definition HAS to be dehumanization happening to the same degree.

    False gods require false devils.

  • sarcasmic||

    If they did, they would be appalled. The American public by and large is not made up of monsters.

    No. But the American public by and large considers drug dealers to be monsters. Once you dehumanize the enemy it's easy to do horrible things to them.

  • John||

    That is not true sarcasmic. They may want drug users in jail, but they don't want what is going on. They just have no real incentive to know what is going on and no one in the media bothers to tell them.

    You are wrong about how people actually think. If they were as you describe them, we would be like China and be hanging drug dealers. And they wouldn't have to conduct this stuff out of the public eye.

  • sarcasmic||

    Take this for example.


    People love this guy because he treats criminals like they're not human.

  • Square||

    I think "people" probably have different perspectives on it.

    Sarcasmic raises a very good point - I remember when "Cops" came out, and I was stunned that this was a show presenting cops on their best behavior, fully realizing that they were being filmed and put on national television. The "whoo-hoo!" attitude of people that I knew who watched "Cops" was even more disturbing.

    On the other hand, only some people watch these shows. The only crime show I watch is "Castle," out of my loyalty to Nathan Fillion for "Firefly," but I'm alway struck by how absolutely benign the police state is portrayed on that show, which seems to be standard for (fictionalized) cop shows.

    I think most people fall into either 1) bad guys are bad and deserve to be humiliated/tortured or whatever and/or 2) our police are actually by and large very wonderful people with only our best interests in mind, and our prison system, while flawed, is ultimately fine.

    Reality is complicated and hard.

  • Invisible Finger||

    I think most people fall into either...

    Actually you are making a distinction without a difference.

  • Square||

    "Actually you are making a distinction without a difference."

    I don't think so. On the one hand there are people who would agree that this is wrong, but prefer semi-wilfully ignoring it so that they don't have to disrupt their lives by feeling a need to do something about it, and I agree with John that most people would feel a need to do something about it if they really knew what was going on.

    However, sarcasmic is also perfectly correct that there is a perhaps equally large population that feels that these people are getting what they deserve, and who DO pay attention to this stuff, cheering it on with great joy. No amount of additional insight would diminish their support for what is being done.

    A smaller population makes themselves aware of it without approving of it.

  • Invisible Finger||

    That is not true sarcasmic. They may want drug users in jail,

    Then they ARE monsters.

  • Bill Dalasio||

    Why can't it be both?

    I think the most likely scenario is that a relatively small portion of the population understands what's going on. Of that relatively small portion, a significant portion approve.

  • Tonio||

    And when you combine the "for their own protection" idiots with the "little punks deserve it" idiots you get a significant bloc of people who support this type of abuse. Busybodies and do-gooders all the way down...

  • mad libertarian guy||

    If I didn't know about it, 99% of America doesn't know about it either. We have the worst media in the history of civilization. Don't tell me that this story wouldn't sell. Kids in solitary confinement for years? If that is not ripe for muckraking and yellow journalism I don't know what is.

    Just further evidence that the media isn't liberal, but authoritarian. It's no coincidence that the two are at a confluence more often than not.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Note to the video producers: You don't have to hedge by saying "some critics regard it as cruel and unusual punishment." You can just say that holding adolescents in solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. Because it is.

  • Square||

    Are you saying the government doesn't have a right to its own opinion?

  • Troy muy grande boner||

    We really have a sick society. It can't collapse soon enough IMHO.

  • JoeyJMiller||

    Thank you for using Bradley Manning's legal name.

  • InklingBooks||

    This problem is remarkably easy to address.

    When I lived in Dallas in the early 1970s, juveniles were usually sent to a group home run by the county in the countryside well south of the city. I know. I worked there as a volunteer.

    No jail, no bars, not even a fence around it. Just a dozen or so home-like cottages overseen by older couples a bit like grandparents. There were large playgrounds, a dining hall and a school. I actually enjoying getting to know those kids.

    I was told that it was created what is now some forty years ago by judges decent enough and sensible enough to know they shouldn't send kids to prison, either with or without solitary confinement.

    There's no excuse for this solitary confinement. There are better ways.

  • JeremyR||

    That would be a good argument if crime wasn't so bad in the 1970s.

    The current system is largely in reaction to the crime of the '70s...

  • Jumbie||

    Fuck you, reason. *TV*!

    I ain't watching that video.

    I can handle kids being expelled for airsoft guns. I can even handle kids being charged for weapons possession over airsoft guns.

    But no way, no how am I taking the juvenile solitary nutpunch...

  • Bramblyspam||

    Out of all the Reason stories I've read and videos I've watched, I'd have to say this one was the toughest to handle.

  • JeremyR||

    I dunno, if it's the choice between having my own cell and being raped by other inmates, I'm going to go with having my own cell.

    I really don't get the drawback.

  • Azathoth!!||

    Why are they in solitary?

    If they're in solitary because they hurt other kids when they're not, fine.

    If they're in solitary to 'protect' them from other kids, no. Protection should not be the same as punishment.

    Judge each case on it's own. Stop simply accepting these blanket collectivist pronouncements--'get rid of solitary for juveniles'. Not all juvenile criminals are the same. Some may need solitary.

    It is the acceptance of these one-size-fits-all 'solutions' that is the problem. Zero tolerance, mandatory minimums. These treat individuals as if they are part of a herd--or a hive.

  • Seabourne||

    Todays Injustice System must be reformed into a Justice System - YOUR VOICE IS NEEDED!

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