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Detention centers should end excessive isolation of young people

As a community advocate for the Southern Poverty Law Center, I spend countless hours visiting children in Mississippi and Louisiana jails to ensure they are safe and their rights are being protected.

As a community advocate for the Southern Poverty Law Center, I spend countless hours visiting children in Mississippi and Louisiana jails to ensure they are safe and their rights are being protected.

I listen closely to what these young people have to say. Sadly, there’s no shortage of disturbing and heartbreaking stories. Some of the most troubling don’t even involve an encounter with another prisoner or a guard, but rather the pain of solitary confinement.

These young people tell me about how they ended up talking to themselves – and even the walls – as a result of this harsh punishment. I hear anecdotes that point to the tell-tale signs of psychosis born out of long hours in solitary confinement. They report depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts. It’s even worse for young people with disabilities.

That’s why it’s encouraging that an effort is under way in the U.S. Senate to virtually end this practice. The REDEEM ACT (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act), introduced earlier last month by Sens. Rand Paul and Cory Booker, includes a provision that would bar the solitary confinement of juveniles except when it’s necessary to protect a juvenile detainee or those around that individual.

This change is desperately needed.

Courts and other officials have recognized that young offenders are fundamentally different from adult prisoners, who might be better equipped to endure solitary confinement. Unfortunately, many detention centers continue to ignore these findings, possibly derailing young lives in the process.

Two years ago, in Miller v. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected mandatory life sentences with no possibility for parole for young offenders. In that ruling, the court emphasized that children possess a greater capacity for reform than adult offenders. The high court referred to research showing that parts of the brain involved in behavior control continue to mature through adolescence.

In fact, in three major cases since 2005 (Roper v. Simmons; Graham v. Florida; and Miller v. Alabama) the Supreme Court has rejected harsh sentences for children under the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive punishment. The court’s finding regarding youth delinquency – that children are generally less morally responsible and possess a greater capacity for reform – should apply to children subjected to isolation. In other words, it is time to recognize that such isolation is not only unhealthy for young people but can thwart their rehabilitation.

In May, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for an end to the excessive use of solitary confinement for young people suffering from mental illness. Such practices, Holder said, “can have lasting substantial effects on young people that could result in self-harm or, in some cases, even suicide.”

He cited a national study finding that half of the victims of suicides in juvenile facilities were in isolation at the time they took their own lives. Sixty-two percent had a history of solitary confinement. The attorney general also stressed that these isolation practices can be a “serious impediment to the ability of youth to succeed once released.”

For me, the attorney general’s statement is no abstraction. Within those statistics, I see the faces of the children I visit in jail. I hear the echoes of the stories they tell me. The issue of locking up kids in solitary confinement is about real people. It’s about young lives that deserve a second chance.

The REDEEM Act provision barring solitary confinement for children isn’t perfect. It should include an outright ban on solitary confinement for children with disabilities, but it is, nevertheless, an important step forward. Our courts and public officials are finally recognizing the serious harm solitary confinement inflicts on our young people. Now is the time for the detention centers holding our children to end this destructive practice. 

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Theodore Shaw is a community advocate for the SPLC’s Louisiana office and a fellow with the Youth Justice Leadership Institute of the National Juvenile Justice Network.