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Rehabilitation Rescinded: Prisons Perpetration of Mental Illness in Juveniles


The archaic practice of isolating humans for days, weeks, months, and even years is an ongoing practice in prisons across the United States. Unsurprisingly, locking up juveniles alone can cause severe mental health issues in their developing minds.

The Depraved Conduct of U.S. Prisons

The country responded in shock and awe when, in 2018, headlines revealed that a Californian couple kept 13 siblings shackled and captive in their home. Fed rarely, beaten often, and prohibited from contact with the outer world, the prosecutor on the case noted, “this is severe, emotional, physical abuse. … This is depraved conduct.” So why is the same treatment inside the walls of a detention facility considered less abusive? Juveniles in solitary confinement are routinely denied nearly all human contact, education, and mental health treatment. Instead, they are left alone, deprived of sight and sound in a cement cell.

The United Nations has declared that solitary confinement beyond 15 days is a form of torture. Solitary confinement is the most extreme form of isolation in a detention setting for juveniles, defined as “the involuntary placement of a child or youth alone in a cell, room, or other area for any reason other than as a temporary response to behavior that threatens immediate harm to the youth or others.” For 22 to 24 hours a day, an inmate in isolation is confined to their tiny cell, approximately the width and length of a parking space. Their room may contain: a toilet and sink; a bolted down desk; a steel bed with a thin mattress; and an overhead fluorescent light. The metal door has a Plexiglas window that is so scratched you can’t see through it and the painted walls are used as blank pages. Family visits are suspended or restricted; reading material, radio, or television is minimal, if present. Food trays are passed through a panel slot that can only be unlocked from the outside. There is nothing to do, and no one to talk to (but yourself). This practice violates modern standards of humanity and decency as those standards have evolved through studies on the deleterious effects of solitary confinement on juveniles.

The American Psychiatric Association estimates that “thousands” of children are held in solitary confinement every year. Today, the practice of juvenile solitary confinement has been widely condemned, particularly as we raise our awareness about the vulnerability of the adolescent brain. Unsurprisingly, locking juveniles in solitary confinement can cause severe mental health issues in their developing minds. Children who experience solitary confinement report feelings of post-traumatic stress, confusion, poor concentration, hopelessness, despair, insomnia, bursts of energy and anxiety, listlessness, hallucinations, agitation, suicidal thoughts, and displays of self-mutilation.

Case in Point: A Look at HDR’s Client Being Held in Solitary Confinement

Our firm HDR represents E.L., a juvenile who has suffered from serious mental illness since the age of 6. Since his incarceration, E.L. has been confined to solitary confinement for consecutive weeks. Most days, he is in his cell for 23 hours. If he has access to the yard, he is alone and subject to the weather for two hours, despite how uncomfortably hot or cold it may be. His medication has been rapidly discontinued or altered, leaving him to feel anxious and depressed. He is permitted to shower once every 10 days for stretches at a time.

E.L. has reported that the back to back stints of seclusion have had an increasingly negative effect on his mental state and emotions. He has asked for services and medication to help stabilize him; for the most part, E.L. has been denied these requests. Accordingly, he has deteriorated into a state of disorganization and has reported the use of self-harm for “instant emotional relief.”

HDR has issued a Motion of Emergency Relief since his solitary confinement is considered unconstitutional and is in violation of the modern standards of humanness and decency.

To read the initial complaint our firm filed on behalf of E.L., see:

History of Solitary Confinement

In the mid-1800’s, solitary confinement was adopted into the American criminal justice system to “inspire true regret in the heart of convicts.” But this practice of “promoting rehabilitation” quickly raised concerns as prisons documented deeply discouraging effects. After touring a New York State prison in 1826, for example, a French sociologist famously reported, “This trial, from which so happy a result had been anticipated was fatal to the greater part of the convicts . . . This absolute solitude . . . is beyond the strength of man. It destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.” Yet the rate of isolation in adult and juvenile detention facilities skyrocketed in the 1980s, in correlation with the number of incarcerated individuals in the United States.

In the early 1990s, in-depth evaluations of the effects of uninterrupted solitary confinement found that most individuals manifested dissociation, confusion, paranoia, confusion, anger, lethargy, depression, and chronic difficulties in social interaction. Inmates reported multiple signs of psychological stress, with 70% of inmates fearing an impending breakdown, 40% experiencing hallucinations, and 27% having suicidal thoughts.

It is well-evidenced that, regardless of age, solitary confinement does nothing to “rehabilitate” prisoners. In 2014,  a study regarding solitary confinement and the risk of self-harm among New York City inmates found that “after controlling for gender, age, race/ethnicity, serious mental illness, and length of stay,” self-harm was found to be significantly associated with being in solitary confinement and being aged 18 or younger. Self-mutilation, suicide attempts, and completed suicides are a disturbing trend among youth who have been placed in solitary confinement, perhaps speaking to the desperation of those faced with the prospect of complete isolation.

That same year, the Department of Justice highlighted the dangers of solitary confinement to juveniles and criticized its overuse in juvenile facilities, in particular.

In a study released last year by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 47 percent of juvenile detention centers reported locking youth in some type of isolation for more than four hours at a time. We have received reports of young people who have been held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, often with no human interaction at all. In some cases, children were held in small rooms with windows that were barely the width of their own hands.

In 2016, President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system, following the Department of Justice’s finding that only in rare circumstances should a juvenile be separated from others “as a temporary response to behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to any person. Even in such cases, the placement should be brief, designed as a “cool down” period, and done only in consultation with a mental health professional” (emphasis added).

What’s Being Done: As the Inhumanity of Solitary Confinement is Established, Is Anything Changing?

Revealing the ways in which the United States has begun to move away from using solitary confinement as a punitive measure, a  2016 study found that in Juvenile Justice Systems:

  1. 29 states prohibit the use of punitive solitary confinement as a punishment in juvenile correctional facilities by law or practice. Some states allow confinement for only a few hours a day; those states that allow it for a maximum of 4 hours per day are counted among the states that have banned punitive solitary confinement;
  2. 15 states impose time limits on the use of punitive solitary confinement, ranging from 6 hours to 90 days. Among states that allow punitive confinement, the most common limits on the amount of time that juveniles may spend in isolation are 3 to 5 days.
  3. 7 states either place no limit on the amount of time a juvenile may spend in punitive solitary confinement or allow indefinite extensions of their tie limits through administrative approval. Here is the link to the table regarding states: table.

On one hand, this sounds like progress. On the other hand, we must stop to note the difference (or lack thereof) between punitive and non-punitive solitary confinement. Though the goal is to remove the practice as a punitive measure, the majority of states still place minors in isolation:

  1. Of the 29 states that ban punitive solitary confinement, at least 25 continue to use solitary confinement for other purposes, such as safety concerns.
  2. Only 12 of the 25 provide that the juvenile should be released when he/she regains self-control, irrespective of the time limit, but those decisions are often left to the discretion of the corrections officer.
  3. 12 of the 25 allow indefinite extension of the stated limit with proper administrative approval.

As this shows, even in those states that ban solitary confinement as a form of punishment, juveniles are still consigned to prolonged periods of isolation. In practice, the lines between punitive and non-punitive confinement are blurred. With the continued use of “non-punitive” solitary, juveniles may be exposed to the same harm that the abolition of punitive isolation is meant to prevent.

Prisons Have A Responsibility to Protecting Juveniles From Harm

The prison system’s abuse of solitary confinement is partly due to deficient identification of mental illness, poor access to mental health care and medication, and the marginalization of mental health staff within the prison industrial complex. Additionally, the system seems to justify confining juveniles to solitary when they don’t know what else to do with them. Often, these are cases in which mental illness is contributing to an inmate’s disruptive behavior. While prisons argue that having the ability to isolate an individual maintains discipline and safety throughout the institution, it is an abuse of management power to shove someone in a box and ignore the issue at large.

Seclusion for therapeutic purposes, on the other hand, is intended to ensure the safety and well-being of the incarcerated teen acting out by providing an enhanced level of observation and one-on-one interaction with a mental health professional. We hope to see an improvement in the styles of rehabilitation and support of juveniles, particularly those with mental illness, as the movement to end solitary confinement grows.

If a child you know is being unconstitutionally held in solitary confinement, call HDR today.