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  • Melat Mesfin

Trapped and Dehumanized: Solitary Confinement’s Lasting Impact on Juveniles

Severe restriction of environmental and social stimulation has an injurious effect on mental and physical functioning. In the United States, over eighty thousand men, women, and children live in solitary confinement within prisons. Inmates in solitary confinement live in small rooms with little contact with other human beings as well as limited access to rehabilitative, educational programming, and adequate medical and mental health treatment.

In the nineteenth-century United States, this practice began as an experiment under the assumption that inmates would use time alone to repent for their sins; however, it caused negative effects like mental disorders. Even though in 1890 the Supreme Court recognized the dangers of solitary confinement, prison administrators in the 1960s began using this method as a way of dealing with violence and overcrowding. Today, about twenty percent of prisoners have spent time in solitary confinement.

According to the National Institute of Corrections, “Juvenile detention is defined as the temporary and safe custody of juveniles who are accused of conduct subject to the jurisdiction of the court who require a restricted environment for their own or the community’s protection while pending legal action.” Contrastingly, juveniles in adult prisons are generally kept in solitary confinement for their protection from older inmates unlike juvenile centers composed of only juveniles.

Although every state in America has the capacity to house juveniles separate from adults, many refuse to do so, resulting in over four thousand children housed in adult jails and prisons in solitary confinement. Adolescents convicted of crimes should not suffer through hours of isolation on account of one past mistake. Instead, prisons should work to rehabilitate them so that they can return back to society.

Through complete isolation from human contact, solitary confinement of children with developing brains dehumanizes prisoners in a cruel system that makes reintroduction into society nearly impossible. The solitary confinement of juveniles increases and even induces psychological trauma leaving these children in a worse state of mind from when they entered prison. Without proper medical attention, the isolation inherent in solitary confinement causes psychological trauma for the children who have nothing to do but dwell on their pain.

Alyssa Beck experienced the mental horrors of solitary confinement, and she explains how the distressing isolation caused her to relive many of her previous traumatic experiences. Lacking any proper medical attention, she often blamed herself for causing harm and believed that she deserved to be kept away from everyone. Her experience in solitary confinement caused her past physical abuse to manifest itself as psychological trauma. Dehumanized by her conditions, she compared her treatment to one of a caged animal.

She saw other people try to commit suicide, and this caused her to question her motive for living. She attempted suicide several times within solitary confinement by different methods, including rolling off the top bunk of her bed. Trapped in a room for 23 hours everyday, she developed deep depression and anxiety. She ended up getting arrested again after her first felony which shows the jail’s failure at rehabilitation.

The Juvenile Law Center’s observations on how severe punishment hinders a developing child by intensifying psychological issues show the destructive nature of solitary confinement: “Harsh conditions or practices in youth prisons interfere with child development, traumatize youth, exacerbate physical and emotional disabilities and cause serious life-long health problems.”

Beck’s experience matches this observation of the negative mental health effects caused by torturing children through the use of seclusion in prisons. The degradation of mental health provoked by forced solitude results in children with permanent emotional health problems that make it increasingly difficult to return to society where their needs often cannot be met. Without medical attention, they often fall into the cycle of recidivism like Beck did after her first release.

In Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement, Enceno Macy, a former juvenile in solitary confinement, details his considerable psychological damage which added onto his prior conditions: “I was ruled by sorrow, fear, and anger. Deep depression about missing people I used to know, and my mom [....] I did think about death a lot, and I had dreams of an apocalyptic world (and still do).”

The loneliness of solitary confinement made him suicidal. The prison system also lacked proper medication for his depression: “The only meds that made any difference were the ones that knock you out for days at a time.” Lack of social contact harms juveniles because it allows them to retreat into the darkness of solitude in their minds. Human interaction plays a crucial role in development and mental health, and these children cannot receive this important part of life within solitary confinement.

Neuroscientists explain the neurological deterioration caused by seclusion: “Chronic stress damages the hippocampus, a brain area important for memory, spatial orientation and emotion regulation. As a result, socially isolated people experience memory loss, cognitive decline and depression.” Considering that stress damages emotion regulation it would make sense that Macy experienced a diverse array of emotions including fear and anger. This can cause lifelong damage and can hinder survivors from opportunities and experiences that they could have had if they did not go through the psychologically wrenching solitary confinement.

Lack of proper medical care can lead juveniles in solitary confinement to go to extreme measures to receive the attention that they need and deserve. In an interview conducted by The Human Rights Watch, a juvenile solitary confinement inmate confessed to cutting himself to get psychological attention because he had no one to talk to. Despite the many health-related problems induced by solitary confinement, these prisons do not provide adequate mental health care for juveniles.

They have to physically hurt themselves just to get medical care that they should have in the first place. This desperate measure further worsens the mental health of the adolescents by introducing new forms of trauma like cutting themselves when they just wanted to get the medical care that they have a right to.

Desperate for human attention and tormented by seclusion, Kenny, a juvenile solitary confinement inmate, snapped several times: “One day he lashed out and threw urine at a guard: ‘I’m not even like that, for real. I’m a good person. That place mentally messed me up.’” The psychological burden caused by solitary confinement can push children to act out of impulsiveness. Kenny explains how he does not usually act violently like he did but rather that he changed during his time in solitary. The loneliness he experienced tortured him, and he began to act like a different person.

He explained that prior to solitary, he had never contemplated suicide but now he really wanted to die. A mentally healthy boy entered solitary, and now he has suicidal thoughts that may continue for the rest of his life and further increase the likelihood of his returning to prison. According to a 2012 study, roughly half of prison suicides occur in solitary confinement which shows the ineffectiveness of solitary confinement and rather its detrimental nature towards its inhabitants.

Extended periods of isolation also scientifically cause damaged brain development: “The pruning of synapses—the connections between nerve cells—that occurs during adolescence and helps teenagers grow out of behaviors such as impulsiveness does not occur normally under conditions of extended isolation.” This proves that the use of juvenile solitary confinement needs to be stopped or at least heavily regulated. Kenny’s experience in solitary confinement exhibits the inefficiency of this method of rehabilitation and how it increases impulsivity in children. He said that solitary changed him, and the lack of attention and the possible lack of the pruning of his synapses caused his spontaneous actions.

According to the Bureau of Justice, 83.4% of prisoners released in 2005 got rearrested within nine years of their release; however, the recidivism rate for prisoners released at the age of twenty-four years old or younger was at a higher rate of 90.1%. Children’s lack of neurological development at a young age makes them more prone to continue their criminal behavior and return to prison.

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, in 2006, 49% of all inmates released were rearrested within three years; however, solitary confinement inmates had a higher rate of recidivism, at 61%. Considering that juveniles and solitary confinement inmates get rearrested more than unsegregated adult inmates, these statistics suggest that juveniles in solitary confinement, especially mentally traumatized ones, would return to prison at an even higher rate than other inmates.

Furthermore, through physical abuse juveniles face within solitary confinement, whether it comes from guards tormenting them or a lack of physical activity, these children experience detrimental developmental delays in their health that negatively affect their entire lives. Correctional officers physically abuse children within solitary confinement by many traumatic methods. Alyssa Beck says, “I saw people pepper-sprayed, tased, hog-tied and strapped down to a black restraint chair because they were being ‘too loud’ or banging on the doors for ‘too long.’”

In other circumstances, like mothers hitting their children as punishment, they could go to jail for child abuse, but correctional officers get away with it everyday. Just because children committed crimes does not mean that they lost their humanity. Considering the pettiness of their actions, they should not be physically attacked. Making loud noises does not put anyone else in danger; therefore, officers should not traumatize juveniles for it but reprimand them with words rather than violence. This constant violence causes them to develop aggressive habits which will only land them back in jail after their release.

Children who have experienced sexual abuse endure even more trauma after physical procedures like strip searches. The personal violations of strip-searching and similar practices used by correctional officers outweigh the supposed good that they do. The degrading nature of strip searches makes their use inappropriate, especially for children. This can lead children to feel self-conscious which may create psychological problems that will affect their lives after prison and increase their chance of recidivism.

Rodney Hulin, a convicted juvenile, experienced the brutal environment of an adult prison. Adult prisoners raped Rodney, but the prison refused to let him receive protection from the older inmates. He begged them to move to a segregated unit so that he could avoid sexual abuse from prisoners. The prison ignored his pleas, and after seventy-five days in prison, Rodney committed suicide. Rodney should not have experienced sexual abuse in prison because the officers should have moved him into a segregated room to guarantee his safety.

Some correctional officers take advantage of their power by physically abusing inmates themselves: “They placed a shock shield (an electrified shield) against his back and electrocuted him. What struck Malik was that: ‘They was laughing. It was like they were enjoying it.’” No child should go through the trauma of electrocution; furthermore, correctional officers should not enjoy hurting children that they are supposed to help and rehabilitate.

This piece of anecdotal evidence shows the corruption within prison systems. Considering that Malik saw it, others most likely witnessed this act of violence, and it must have humiliated the boy, causing him to have trauma for the rest of his life. He will likely never forget the pain and dehumanization caused by the correctional officers’ abuse. When released, he may have fearful and troubling thoughts from the physical abuse he went through.

Evidence proving that violent practices reduce violence in youth facilities has yet to emerge. Instead, research shows that they worsen violence in youth facilities. Violence only creates more violence; therefore, correctional officers should not abuse their powers and violate children in solitary confinement.

As clichéd as it sounds, every teenager breaks the rules from time to time; therefore, a little disobedience should not result in getting pepper-sprayed. Physical abuse will only cause the victim’s aggression to increase. Increased aggression and hostility will lead these children back to solitary confinement or prison, causing a vicious cycle that stems from the physical abuse they endured in solitary confinement.

Kendell Davis’s mom described her son’s deteriorating physical health since he entered solitary confinement: “He physically changed in solitary: his skin would get gray, his speech changed, he walked differently.” Although children should get an hour of exercise daily, children in solitary confinement barely get a fraction of that. These physical effects can last for their entire lives considering childhood’s crucial role in determining permanent physical development.

Lack of physical exercise can cause children to develop long-term health problems. Even when provided with time to exercise, children have to stay in small cages with no room to engage in sufficient physical activity. Denial of physical activity can also interfere with a child’s sanity and mental health because they have nothing to physically do all day. This within itself can drive children mad. Since children require physical exercise, this hinders their psychical development which can lead to lifelong health problems.

Considering food’s essential role in survival, people, especially growing children, should not be deprived from it. One interviewed solitary confinement inmate explained how she received very little food and lost more than fifteen pounds in her time there. The lack of proper food in solitary confinement shows its dehumanizing nature. Adolescents need food, a basic necessity of life, to survive and grow. This system can stunt juvenile growth and cause health problems associated with malnutrition.

These health conditions can persist for the child’s entire life which can worsen over time making it hard to live in a society where most people do not understand his or her struggles. Juvenile inmates receive innutritious meals that make them lose weight: “According to some juvenile inmates, their meals were being changed to ‘a baked nutritional loaf’ or to beans and processed food.

As a result, juveniles reported losing weight, anywhere between fifteen and twenty pounds in a little over a month. Children cannot develop properly with an inadequate food supply; therefore, punishing children by giving them processed food is detrimental to their health. Losing weight quickly can result in health disorders which can affect adolescents into their adult life making it hard for them to function.

Confined in a room alone for most of the day, children placed in solitary confinement lack proper education that prevents them from progressing intellectually like other children their age, and this causes them to have fewer opportunities when released from a prison meant to rehabilitate them. With a lack of educational resources, children cannot receive the proper education they have a right to. Without education, these children face even greater difficulties when released from prison because they have inadequate education and little experience in the real work force.

Children placed in solitary confinement because of their age suffer educationally since they do not have the resources to learn in that environment: “The report also noted that in many small jails, all children are housed in solitary confinement to keep them separate from adults and denied any education at all.” Denial of education should not be a punishment used in solitary confinement because that only further discourages children to work hard. If they have no educational mentor, then they feel as though they have no hope. Education plays a crucial role in rehabilitation, and without it, obtaining jobs increases in difficulty.

According to a 2006 study, only 36% of juveniles in solitary confinement received any form of education. If prisons place children in solitary confinement to protect them from the older general population, then they should receive the educational benefits provided to unsegregated juveniles. Also, within juvenile facilities, segregated children experience an unfair disadvantage because they miss crucial information in the classes that continue during their time in solitary confinement.

Kendell Davis’s mom describes the lack of education her son receives in solitary confinement: “He gets cut off. No pencils, no anything, no books. When you’re in the bing there’s no school. You sit, that’s what you do.” Lack of education while in solitary confinement causes children to have mental conditions because they have nothing to do but sleep and think. Excessive thinking can lead to a whole set of conditions like depression and anxiety just to name a few. Children need education to progress intellectually, and it is wrong to deny that right to them. Denying them education, only sets them up for failure when they return to the outside world.

Without any motivation, children do not complete their work: “If you are enrolled in school, they slide a packet under your door. I don’t do it. I don’t feel like doing work in my cell. If they would take me to school I would do it, but they just keep giving you work.” Teaching administrators within prisons should encourage the children to complete their work or enforce rules requiring them to turn in their assignments. It makes no sense to give assignments to children without providing them an opportunity to go to school and properly learn the material.

Piling them with packets without resources to complete them has an ineffective outcome. Children in solitary receive worksheets that do not count without access to teachers. If the worksheets do not count for anything, the children have no reason or motivation to complete them. Without a teacher to help them learn, adolescents within solitary experience a disadvantage compared to other children in unsegregated prison as well as in the real world.

The United States should take inspiration from prisons around the world that successfully rehabilitate juveniles without hurting them in detrimental ways like keeping them in isolation with very few resources. Bjørgvin Prison, located in Norway, has a recidivism of 36%, much lower than that of the United States, which proves the effectiveness of their humane methods. Unlike many prisons around the world, Bjørgvin provides a better model: “It has no barded wire, no officers in uniform, and few of the dehumanizing aspects normally associated with the prison environment.”

With rare incidences of violence or self-harm, Bjørgvin contrasts greatly with violence-ridden American prisons. They have a well-equipped staff including therapists, teachers, and social and welfare workers that help rehabilitate the juveniles. Since the staff members invest themselves in the lives of the children by catering to their individual needs, it makes sense why many of the children do not repeat their offenses.

Recently, the realization of the ineffective and cruel nature of isolation has emerged and led to solitary confinement reform which has already made some headway in the United States. Leann Bertsch, North Dakota's director of corrections and rehabilitation, went on a trip to Norway which inspired her to reduce the use and severity of isolation. Rather than practically complete isolation, these inmates had much more recreation time and learned new skills.

These reforms made such a difference that the number of inmates in solitary confinement dropped to only twenty people, less than one-fourth of the original population. Michael Taylor, an inmate at the North Dakota prison, said that the new solitary unit has made a difference for him because of the helpful therapists. The medical care helped him so much that he said that he would like to study counseling after he gets out of prison.

Considering the negative effects of solitary confinement, proven alternative methods, and the inhumane nature of isolation, the United States and countries around the world should work to eliminate its use for juveniles who face the worst effects of the institution. Often sent to solitary confinement for reasons outside of their control, juveniles in adult facilities deal with undeserved punishments.

Since juvenile years play a central role in brain development, the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement can hinder their future potential. Without proper mental, physical, and educational resources, these children lack the proper facilities to improve their behavior to one that would allow their successful return into the unsegregated population and later the real world.

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