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Slowly Abolishing Solitary Confinement for Children

A darkened solitary confinement cell in Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco, California. (Photo: Christi Nielsen)

Children are still being held in isolation in detention and correctional facilities across the United States. Children can be found curled up on cement floors in bare cells for 22 hours a day, and for days at a time. In order to use bathroom facilities in Los Angeles County Jail, young people must bang on their cell door and hope that someone comes to escort them to a bathroom.

This week, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a measure placing broad restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for youth confined in detention pending trial. The plan allows authorities to use juvenile solitary confinement only for brief “cooling off periods” and only after consultation with a mental health professional. Under the new law, children confined in Los Angeles County — a system which includes three juvenile halls and 13 juvenile camps that together hold some 1,200 young inmates who are being held in isolation in Los Angeles alone — can be placed in solitary confinement, even for short periods, “only as a temporary response to behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to any person. “

New York City agreed to prohibit the use of solitary confinement for prisoners up to 21 years of age, in 2015. And in Illinois, child rights’ advocates are supporting a modest bill in the legislature that would begin to restrict the use of solitary confinement for incarcerated youth.

More than a dozen states in the federal US have banned the practice entirely in recent years. President Obama issued a federal prohibition on solitary confinement of youth in adult federal prisons, a largely symbolic move, since the population of juveniles in federal prisons is quite small.

Studies confirm that being isolated in a small cell can have particularly negative effects on the developing brains of adolescents, and may even increase recidivism. A comprehensive report on juvenile isolation, Growing Up Locked Down, by Ian M. Kyssel was jointly released by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union in 2012.

These significant small steps indicate a general move towards the abolition of the practice of solitary confinement that the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan E. Mendez, has called “torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” in his report of May 2015. In this report, Mr. Mendez refers to torture and children deprived of their liberty and recommends in absolute terms: “to prohibit solitary confinement of any duration and for any purpose;” (para. 86(d). Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, 5 March, 2015, Human Rights Council, The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), particularly article 37(a) provides: No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. CRC General Comment No. 10 provides further support for abolishing solitary confinement of children.

There are today both conservative and liberal sponsors of legislation for ending the solitary confinement of juveniles in the U.S. The brutal story of Khalif Browden mobilized much of this bi-partisan support. At the age of sixteen, Khalif was confined at Rikers Island jail in New York City. He spent three years at Rikers, without a trial. Two of those three years were spent in solitary confinement. Ultimately, his case was dismissed, but Khalif committed suicide when he was released.