UPDATED: ACLU, Human Rights Watch Report Condemns Solitary Confinement for Teens

Human Rights Watch has produced several videos in connection with this report.

In June 2009, Chris Vogel wrote our story "For Their Own Good," detailing the problems created when teens are left in solitary confinement in jail for up to 23 hours a day.

We'd like to think we made an impact -- well, we had some effect in Harris County, which is what we concentrated on -- but as a just-released report from the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch makes clear, it remains a widespread practice.

As our own report found: "The isolation of solitary confinement causes anguish, provokes serious mental and physical health problems, and works against rehabilitation for teenagers," the ACLU and Human Rights Watch found.

And remember, several of the teenagers in our study, and no doubt across the nation, were never convicted of any crime. Authorities segregated them from the adult population while they were awaiting trial -- which in some cases never happened because the cases were dropped.

Entitled "Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons Across the United States," the 141-page report included interviews and correspondence of more than 125 teenagers in 19 states including Texas, as well as jail and prison officials in 10 states.

"Young people have rights and needs that are different from adults; jail and prison practices should reflect those differences and promote their ability to grow and change -- we should invest in youth, not banish them," said Terri Burke, Executive Director of the ACLU of Texas.

"Locking kids in solitary confinement with little or no contact with other people is cruel, harmful and unnecessary," said Ian Kysel, Aryeh Neier Fellow with Human Rights Watch and the ACLU and author of the report. "Normal human interaction is essential to the healthy development and rehabilitation of young people; to cut that off helps nobody."

More from their report:

Human Rights Watch and the ACLU estimate that in 2011, more than 95,000 young people under age 18 were held in prisons and jails. A significant number of these facilities use solitary confinement--for days, weeks, months, or even years--to punish, protect, house, or to treat some of the young people held there.

Because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow, the groups found. Solitary confinement can exacerbate short and long-term mental health problems or make it more likely that such problems will develop. Young people in solitary confinement are routinely denied access to treatment, services, and programming required to meet their medical, psychological, developmental, social, and rehabilitative needs.

Young people interviewed for the report repeatedly described how solitary confinement compounded the stress of being in jail or prison. They spoke about cutting themselves with staples or razors while in solitary confinement; having hallucinations, and losing touch with reality. Several said they had attempted suicide multiple times in solitary confinement.

Those allowed outside described only being allowed to exercise in small metal cages, alone, a few times a week. Several said they could not get books, magazines, paper, pens, or pencils, or attend any classes or programming. For some, the hardest part about solitary confinement was being denied visits and not being able to hug their mother or father.

There are alternative ways to address the problems--whether disciplinary, administrative, protective, or medical--that officials typically cite to justify using solitary confinement, while taking into account the rights and special needs of adolescents, Human Rights Watch and the ACLU said. Youth could be housed in specialized facilities organized to encourage positive behavior. And punishment should be proportional to the infraction, using any short-term isolation as a rare exception.

"Growing Up Locked Down," as well as additional materials including a video, podcast and multimedia feature, can be found online at: www.aclu.org/growinguplockeddown.

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