Despite Reforms, Children in Jails Are Still Held in Solitary Confinement

Despite a growing movement to end the practice of isolating humans in tiny cells for hours and days on end, prisoners are still held in solitary confinement in prisons and jails across the United States — including children. Consider Palm Beach, Florida, where a class-action lawsuit filed in a federal district court last week on behalf of three teenage boys held in the county jail is challenging the practice of placing children in solitary confinement with disturbing allegations against the local sheriff’s department and school board.

According to a complaint filed by human rights lawyers this month, boys aged 16 and 17 are held in solitary confinement at the Palm Beach County Jail for 23 or 24 hours a day, sometimes for weeks and even months on end. They are kept in quiet, tiny cells that contain only “a combined toilet and sink, a stainless steel desk and bolted-down stool, a steel bed with a thin mattress, and an overhead fluorescent light.” The bolted metal doors have two Plexiglas windows that are so scratched that they are impossible to see through. Food trays are passed through a panel slot that can only be unlocked from the outside. The complaint does not disclose the plaintiffs’ full names because they are minors.

Guards leave bright emergency lights on to keep the teenagers awake and force them to drink foul-smelling water from the sink as a form of punishment when children protest their confinement by banging on doors or yelling for help. Children held in solitary report calling out for clean water or to telephone their families, only to be threatened with removal to a “psych ward” where conditions are known to be worse. Like the plaintiffs, most teens held in solitary confinement at the Palm Beach jail are awaiting trial and have yet to be convicted of a crime, according to the complaint. In an email, a spokesperson said the Palm Beach Sherriff’s Office does not comment on pending litigation.

Melissa Duncan, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County’s Education Advocacy Project who filed the lawsuit along with the Florida-based Human Rights Defense Center, said the “circumstances” of solitary confinement at the Palm Beach County Jail are “among the worst in the nation.”

“The children in confinement are denied nearly all human contact, education and mental health treatment, and left in a locked, cement cell from which they are deprived of sight and sound,” Duncan said in a statement.

The boys held in solitary confinement reported feelings of despair and strange hallucinations, according to the complaint. One claimed to have “watched” television on the blank cement wall. Another saw the pages of a book “wiggle.” Unsurprisingly, research shows that locking young people in cells alone can cause severe mental health issues in the developing mind. Children who experience solitary confinement commit suicide, develop psychosis and experience post-traumatic stress.

The three plaintiffs live with learning disabilities, and their attorneys allege that the boys were denied mental health care and educational services through the local school board, as required by federal law. The teens “may receive, at most, packets of [schoolwork] shoved under a cell door or have brief moments to speak with a teacher standing outside of their locked door,” according to the complaint. Duncan told Truthout there’s good reason to suspect the boys are caught in the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Certainly, there are other circumstances beyond just education, but we can look at the education system and perhaps identify that these children have not been properly identified and given services to address their individual needs,” Duncan said.

The plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to issue an injunction halting the practice of placing children charged as adults in solitary confinement at the Palm Beach County Jail. Indeed, high-profile suicide deaths and brutal accounts like those reported in Palm Beach, along with research documenting the psychological damage solitary confinement can cause to the young mind, have lead courts and state legislatures to restrict or prohibit the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for incarcerated children. In 2016, the Obama administration ended the solitary confinement of minors held in federal prisons and instituted reforms aimed at reducing the use of so-called “restrictive housing” in general. However, the practice continues in one form or another in many states.

Human rights advocates say that it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact number of children who experience solitary confinement in the US, but anecdotal evidence suggests the practice is still widespread across the country. The American Psychiatric Association, which opposes the solitary confinement of youth, estimates that “thousands” of children are held in solitary confinement every year. Other surveys have found that two-thirds of public defenders for minors say they have had clients who report being held in solitary confinement for periods of a few hours to seven months, according to the Juvenile Law Center.

A 2016 survey found that Florida is one of 29 states that prohibit the use of solitary confinement as a punishment in juvenile jails, but like the overwhelming majority of states, minors can still be placed in solitary for other purposes, such as “safety” concerns. In practice, advocates say, the lines between punitive and non-punitive confinement are often blurred. Fifteen states that do allow punitive confinement place limits on how long a child can be punished, ranging from six hours to 90 days. Seven states — Michigan, Texas, Iowa, Kansas, Wyoming, Georgia and Alabama — have virtually no restrictions on the solitary confinement of children at all.

Florida’s ban on punitive solitary confinement does not protect the boys held in the Palm Beach County Jail because the district attorney has decided to charge and hold them as adults. Duncan said that one boy was held for 20 days as “disciplinary enforcement.” The other two plaintiffs were isolated from co-defendants in the boys’ section of the jail under “administrative confinement.” The Palm Beach County Jail does not set any limits on administrative confinement, and the complaint alleges that boys in the adult jail are being held “indefinitely” as they await their day in court. The boys were given no opportunity to contest their confinement and jail officials routinely failed to review the decision and monitor their health and safety.

The lawsuit against the sheriff and school board in Palm Beach is the first of its kind in Florida, and Duncan said it’s likely that children charged as adults are experiencing solitary confinement in other jails across the state. Florida law provides no judicial oversight over decisions by district attorneys to charge minors as adults. Duncan suggested reformers look to Colorado, which passed legislation in recent years giving youth the right to seek judicial review when prosecutors charge them as adults. Along with other reforms, the Colorado law caused youth incarceration rates to plummet, according to the Colorado Juvenile Defender Center.

Of course, the solitary confinement of any person, regardless of their age, can be extremely painful and does nothing to “rehabilitate” prisoners. In fact, United Nations has declared confinement beyond 15 days a form of torture. Duncan said solitary confinement is proven to cause much more harm than good, especially in young people, and it’s time to bring the practice to an end in Palm Beach and everywhere else.

“I hope that this is part of a tide of moving away from an archaic and toxic practice,” Duncan said.

Correction: The APA is the American Psychiatric Association, not the American Psychological Association.