AuthorFettig, Amy

    The life and death of Kalief Browder captured the tragic injustice of solitary confinement--especially as inflicted on youth--for the nation and our leaders. Kalief was just 16 years old when he was accused of stealing a backpack. (1) He spent the next three years awaiting trial in Rikers Island prison. (2) During that time, officials put Kalief in solitary confinement for two years, where he endured abuse by officers and other prisoners, multiple suicide attempts, and the deprivation of food. (3) After the charges were finally dropped against him, Kalief returned home at the age of 20, but was never quite the same. (4)

    Six months after he left Rikers, Kalief tried to hang himself at home and was taken to a psychiatric hospital. (5) After that incident, his mental health appeared to improve; he enrolled in college and seemed to thrive. (6) He also began speaking out publicly about his experience as a teen at Rikers and in solitary, catching the attention of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and celebrities like Jay Z and Rosie O'Donnell. (7) In the end, however, the trauma of his experience was too much, and the lasting scars too great. On June 6, 2015, Kalief took his own life in his family home. (8) He was only 22. (9)

    Kalief Browder's tragic death brought almost immediate attention to the brutal treatment that catalyzed it, and the practice of solitary confinement in particular. Just a few weeks after Kalief's death, on June 18, 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited Kalief's story in a concurring opinion written to address the practice of solitary confinement, noting "[t]he human toll wrought" by the practice, how solitary "exact[s] a terrible price" on all people, and how solitary can bring all people "to the edge of madness, perhaps to madness itself." (10) A few months later in an historic op-ed in the Washington Post, President Barack Obama also referenced Kalief's case, denounced the practice of solitary confinement in the United States as "an affront to our common humanity," and announced a federal ban on the use of solitary confinement on youth held in federal prisons. (11)

    The attention of both the President of the United States and a Justice of the Supreme Court--on of the nation's most influential jurists--to an issue like solitary confinement is both striking and highly unusual. (12) However, it is not the product of chance or a one-off citation. Over the past six years, momentum for reform of the practice of solitary confinement and creation of alternatives in our prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers has gained substantial ground, ascending in popular and political dialogue.

    The reform movement's success at capturing the attention of the media, the public, and state and national leaders is unprecedented for any recent modern campaign seeking to end inhumane conditions of confinement. This sudden success is no accident. It is the product of long-term investment by a number of groups, savvy organizing, multi-pronged strategies, innovative corrections and juvenile justice management, and intensive and simultaneous engagement with state, national, and international leaders. Campaigns to end the practice for youth in particular have been bolstered by efforts to reform the practice for adults, but the youth movement also has a life of its own. This is especially true in relation to the greater scientific understanding of brain development and a cultural shift in our perception and treatment of youth who come into conflict with the law.

    The result is that public, corrections, and juvenile justice officials in state after state and the federal system are embracing more humane and effective alternatives to isolation for youth. Some reforms have been halting and piecemeal, others more thoroughgoing. Some are driven by legislation or litigation, others by policy or budget. To understand the current possibilities and obstacles for reform or abolition of the practice of solitary confinement of youth, it is necessary to understand the unique dimensions of the juvenile movement and the different drivers accelerating reform, and to seek to identify areas where challenges and opportunities either support or detract from the ability to create sustainable and meaningful change.

    This article will explore these possibilities by laying out the scope and impact of the problem of solitary confinement of youth; examine the current status of the movement, including an analysis of the drivers of reform; and conclude with observations regarding current opportunities and challenges for ending the practice.


    Before they are old enough to get a driver's license or vote, some children in America are held in solitary confinement for days, weeks, months, and even years at a time. On any given day in the United States, more than 50,000 young people are held in state or federal juvenile detention facilities. (13) For youth held in adult facilities, the most recent data demonstrates that on any given day there are approximately 4,200 youth aged 17 and under in adult jails and just over 1,000 in adult prisons on any given day. (14)

    The use of isolation, including solitary confinement, in juvenile facilities is widespread. (15) And for youth held in adult facilities, the use of solitary confinement is both frequent and inflicted for extended periods of time. (16) Officials often claim they need solitary confinement to separate youth after a fight, to discipline them when they act out, or for administrative reasons. (17) For youth held in adult facilities, solitary confinement is often used to protect them from physical or sexual abuse by adults. (18) Despite the prevalence of youth under the age of 18 in adult facilities in the United States, most adult correctional systems offer few alternatives to solitary confinement as a means of protecting youth. (19) Both protective and punitive isolation practices frequently involve confining youth alone in a cell for several hours at a time, sometimes for 22 to 24 hours per day, or even for days, weeks, or months. (20) Extreme social isolation is harmful in itself; it also frequently coincides with restricted visitation with family members, limited educational materials, and curtailed physical exercise privileges. (21)

    Solitary confinement is well known to harm previously healthy adults, placing any person at risk of grave psychological damage. Mental health experts agree that solitary confinement is psychologically harmful for adults--especially those with pre-existing mental illness. (22) Children are even more vulnerable to the harms of isolation than adults due to their unique developmental needs. (23) Young people's brains are still developing, placing them at higher risk of psychological harm when healthy development is impeded. (24) Children experience time differently than adults; and they need social stimulation in order to develop in an age-appropriate manner. (25) Many youth enter the criminal justice system with histories of substance abuse, mental illness, and trauma. (26) These problems often go untreated in isolation, exacerbating their harmful effects. (27)

    "A tragic consequence of the solitary confinement of youth is the increased risk of suicide and self-harm, including... self-mutilation[, and m]ore than 50% of all youth suicides in juvenile facilities" occur in isolation. (28) The suicide rates for youth in adult jails compared to those in the general population are 19 times greater and the use of solitary on youth in these facilities is widespread. (29) At the same time, youth in isolation are routinely denied minimum education, mental health treatment, and nutrition. (30) This directly affects their ability to successfully re-enter society and become productive adults. (31)


    Recognition that solitary confinement hurts youth and efforts to both curtail and end the practice has been building in recent years. In June 2012, the United States Department of Justice ("DOJ") issued national standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act ("PREA"), stating that "the Department supports strong limitations on the confinement of adults with juveniles," and mandating that facilities make "best efforts" to avoid isolating children. (32) In 2011, the United States Attorney General's National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence concluded that "nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement." (33) Internationally, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has called for a global ban on the solitary confinement of children under eighteen. (34) Civil society groups, such as Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union ("ACLU"), have also called on the United States to ban this practice. (35) This new momentum to end the use of solitary confinement on youth is the product of a broad cultural rethinking of the practice, its impacts, and outcomes.


    The momentum for banning the solitary confinement of youth builds on five discernible agents of change: (1) increased scientific understanding of human brain development informing law and policy; (2) civil society campaigns; (3) civil rights litigation and the development of alternatives; (4) leadership in the field and a climate for reform; and (5) media coverage that increases public awareness and discourse. All of these agents of reform are critical to the ultimate success of the movement because achieving lasting change to end solitary confinement on youth in this country requires more than reform of a particular policy, law, or short-term practice. Real change in this arena demands a cultural shift that fundamentally rethinks United States' reliance on incarceration as a strategy for dealing with persistent social problems and the socio-economic fallout...

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