Solitary Confinement for Juveniles

Solitary Confinement for Juveniles

Kalief Browder, despite succumbing to the deliriums of his own mind and killing himself in 2014 because of his inability to cope up with the community life after spending two years in solitary confinement on Riker’s Island, brought a palpable change in American federal prison system by making the then President Barack Obama ban solitary confinement for juveniles. In the aftermath of Kalief’ suicide, former President brought many required changes concerning this inhumane odyssey that certain inmates, and especially children and teenagers are made to go through while serving time for minor infractions and certain non-violent crimes.

By isolating juvenile inmates in cells which barely are equivalent to king size bed for 22 to 23 hours a day, solitary confinement wreaks profound havoc on the current state of functioning of a juvenile and even beyond the prison time as well. The gamut runs from psychological and neurological damage to obsessive thinking, paranoia, anxiety, and anger. Many studies have substantiated that even a few days of solitary confinement can latently shift the EEG (electroencephalogram) pattern to abnormal patter which is a characteristic of torpor and delirium.  These were the symptoms that Browder couldn’t manage to do away with even after he was released in 2013.

And the reason why solitary punishment proves damning for individuals in the same age bracket as that of Late Browder’s is because of the germinating stage of an adolescent brain. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for the cognitive processes such as planning, strategizing and organizing thoughts is dealt a significant blow when a juvenile is kept in solitary for 22 hours straight. It breaks his regular cycle of thoughts and what Craig Haney- a professor of psychology who has been studying impacts of solitary confinement for 30 years- suggests, brings forth “ontological insecurity.”  Haney explicates further that the inmate, especially the younger ones, start interrogating their own being-whether they exist or not- and if they do, then who they are.  Having literally nothing meaningful to do coupled with a total lack of social contact, the juveniles are forced to consider the thought of taking their own lives. This claim is corroborated by the report from Juvenile Law Center, which states that more than half of the suicides in Juvenile Justice facilities occur when the younger person is alone.

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Suicide, under the circumstances like these, is more of a systemic failure than an individual one as revealed by a national survey conducted by the Law Center. More than two-thirds of public defenders reported that their juvenile clients spent time- ranging from few hours to seven months- in solitary confinement. They also chastised the unhygienic conditions of the isolated cells and alleged that their clients were deprived of the essential amenities such as mattresses, sheets, showers, eating utensils and mental health treatment.  Cases of brutal assaults by the correction officers in juvenile facilities were found to be pervasive, and inmate violence was rampant. But a gradual shift away from solitary confinement has been observed over the years in the US as cited by The Marshall Project, with maximum reforms occurring post-2014, after Kalief’s devastating suicide.

Although it will be hard to entirely do away with solitary incarceration since it is at times deemed necessary for the inmate’s own safety as well as the safety of the prison officials and other prisoners, but reforms such increasing the number of hours out of confinement, banning the exercise altogether for low-level infractions and expanding mental treatment for mentally ill juveniles are steps in the positive direction.

The practice of isolating youngster in prison is still functioning in many states, but the recent reforms have assisted in decreasing the count of suicides and have made conditions in the cells much more becoming for inmates. So, what do you think? Should prisons ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles or not?

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