After years under the radar, the use of solitary confinement for incarcerated youth is back in the news. In 2015, both The New York Times and The Washington Post published a number of articles and editorials on the topic, and for good reason. In July of last year, President Obama ordered the Justice Department to review the overuse of solitary confinement. And, since 2012, growing concern with the practice has led to sweeping reforms which are gradually, though not entirely, curtailing its use among youth in the criminal justice system.
What is solitary confinement? Certainly, most of us have a general idea of what is meant by the term. However, given the detrimental effects of the practice, particularly on adolescents, it’s worth taking a fresh look. Whether in adult jail or in juvenile detention centers, solitary confinement refers to being held in a cell alone, in extreme cases for more than 23 hours a day. In some circumstances the cells can be as small as 8-by-8-feet and while some include a small window, others do not. Youth typically have no access to radio or television, have limited social interaction with others, and are sometimes denied educational opportunities.
The practice is usually reserved for disciplinary infractions or, in the case of youth in adult prisons, in order to protect them from other inmates. The length of time adolescents are held in solitary confinement varies from several weeks, to months, or even years. In 2015, the New York Times reported on a 16-year-old youth who had been held in solitary confinement in an adult prison in Mississippi for the better part of two years while awaiting trial. As many as 17,000 youths are held in isolation in juvenile jails nationwide, according to the Justice Department. For youth being held in isolation in adult jails there is no official count.
Why the recent growing concern with this practice, particularly for adolescents? The main reason is that both courts and criminal justice officials are beginning to understand what researchers have been reporting for several years: that solitary confinement is psychologically harmful to inmates. Although the amount of research pertaining to its use in juvenile facilities is minimal, there is extensive research detailing its effects on adult prisoners. Research indicates that the psychological effects of isolation can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis. Physical effects can include appetite loss and weight loss, headaches, heart palpitations, and problems sleeping.
Research on adolescent development more broadly, though, suggests that the effects of isolation on youth may be even more detrimental. For example, research on the brain has found that although extensive development occurs in the first few years of life, the brain continues to undergo structural growth well into early adulthood. Of particular importance are changes to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is linked to the ability to inhibit impulses, weigh consequences of decisions, prioritize, and strategize. This is one of the last parts of the brain to fully develop and doesn’t reach adult maturity until a person is in his or her twenties. Given this essential period of development, isolation is likely to be more damaging to a juvenile than to an adult.
Additionally, researchers estimate that nearly 60 percent of juveniles who have been arrested have some form of mental illness. Since youth who struggle with psychological disorders are particularly vulnerable to stress, it is likely that isolation both increases stress levels and deepens existing psychological problems. Interviews with youth who have been held in solitary confinement indicate that it can also trigger memories of past trauma, making it even more difficult to cope while in isolation. In 2012, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a policy statement opposing the use of the practice in correctional facilities for juveniles and urging that any youth who is confined for more than 24 hours be evaluated by a mental health professional.
The momentum toward reform in this area has gradually been increasing and is part of larger changes occurring within the juvenile justice system. One of the most significant reform efforts has been that of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, whose recommendations have been adopted by more than 200 jurisdictions. In 2014, JDAI called for the end of unnecessary isolation for adolescents except in cases of emergency.
In the past few years, the courts and state criminal justice systems have begun to respond. Largely through the efforts of the Department of Justice, more states passed solitary confinement reforms in 2014 than in any other time during the previous 16 years. These reforms included curtailing the use of solitary confinement and abolishing solitary for juveniles or the mentally ill. Beginning this month, Rikers Island in New York City will eliminate isolation for all inmates ages 21 and younger.
Still, the problematic use of the practice persists in juvenile facilities. According to a 2015 report from JDAI, an overreliance on isolation continues in several states, including Illinois, Iowa, West Virginia, Texas, and New Jersey. In order to support the physical and mental development of adolescents, researchers should focus greater attention on this issue and, in the interim, policymakers should continue to explore ways to reform its use within the juvenile justice system.
Shawn Teague, Research Analyst
 Giedd, J.N. (2004). Structural magnetic resonance imaging of the adolescent brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Science, 1021(1), 77-85.