By Joyce Iwashita
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the US is currently imprisoning more than 2.3 million people, giving the US the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world. Despite the high figure, inmates often do not receive the support that they need to successfully reenter society. Instead, more than 80,000 inmates across the country are held in isolated confinement on any given day, including about 25,000 in long-term solitary in supermax prisons (Vera Institute of Justice). On June 19, 2012, a Congressional hearing on solitary confinement held before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights recognized that solitary confinement has human rights, fiscal, and public safety consequences. Yet, despite widespread recognition of its failures, even children continue to be placed in solitary confinement. The following is a policy proposal to Attorney General Eric Holder to restrict the use of solitary confinement on incarcerated juveniles.
To: Eric Holder
Office Held: United States Attorney General
From: Joyce Iwashita
Issue: Restrict the Use of Solitary Confinement on Incarcerated Juveniles
Solitary confinement, the isolated confinement of inmates in closed cells for an average of 23 hours a day, can have serious psychological effects on inmates and lead to mental illness, self-mutilation, and suicide.1 The harmful psychological effects can impede inmates’ abilities to successfully reenter society and escape recidivism.2 Individuals under 18 years of age are especially at risk of the mental health consequences of solitary confinement.3 Department of Justice (DOJ) Standards for the Administration of Juvenile Justice state that juvenile inmates should “never” be held in solitary confinement for more than 24 hours.4 Yet, DOJ’s 2003 Survey of Youth in Residential Placement (SYRP) estimated that of the more than 100,000 juvenile inmates in the US at the time, 35% had been held in solitary confinement. 87% of these previously isolated inmates had been isolated for longer than 2 hours and 55% had been isolated for longer than 24 hours.5 Best practices guidelines recommend that youth held in solitary confinement for longer than 2 hours see a counselor.6 However, according to SYRP, 52% of those isolated longer than 2 hours indicated that they had not talked to a counselor since entering the facility.7
The Department of Justice should implement existing federal standards that regulate the placement of children in solitary confinement. DOJ should make a public statement to correctional facilities across the country communicating that they must comply with existing standards. The statement should clarify the standards and guidelines on solitary confinement. DOJ should regularly request information from correctional facilities on the frequency and extent of the facilities’ use of isolation measures and publicly report the information. Public reporting of solitary confinement policies and practices would allow the public and elected officials, in addition to DOJ officials, to engage in oversight to ensure that standards on solitary confinement continue to be followed. Correctional facilities that repeatedly fail to comply should be subject to internal review. Furthermore, legislation should be proposed to Congress to ban the use of solitary confinement on juvenile inmates in all correctional facilities. The legislation should provide for funds to incentivize the development and implementation of alternative practices, and to enable facilities to hire counselors to talk to juvenile inmates deemed to need the support.
Major Obstacles/Implementation Challenges
A major challenge to enforcement is the current institutionalized use of solitary confinement. Under current practices and budget allocations, correctional facilities may have difficulty developing and implementing alternatives to solitary confinement in a timely manner. In its statement to correctional facilities, DOJ could suggest simple alternative measures like requiring a consultation prior to placing an out of control youth in isolation.8 Another obstacle is the cost to ensure that information correctional facilities provide on their use of solitary confinement is accurate and follows standards. Funds should be allocated to the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to support the OIG’s increased oversight efforts. Additionally, a challenge is that the implementation of partial restrictions would hurt the urgency of legislation that could comprehensively reassess solitary confinement. However, addressing the failures of the use of solitary confinement on some of the most vulnerable incarcerated individuals, including children, would be the first step to reassessing the use of solitary confinement in general.
1. Craig Haney, “Testimony of Professor Craig Haney” (testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights hearing on solitary confinement, Washington, D.C., June 19, 2012).
2. Michael Horowitz. “Top Management and Performance Challenges Facing the Department of Justice – 2013,” U.S. Department of Justice, December 11, 2013, accessed January 14, 2014, http://www.justice.gov/oig/challenges/2013.htm.
3. Juvenile Justice Reform Committee, “Solitary Confinement of Juvenile Offenders,” American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, statement, April 2012.
4. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Standards for the Administration of Juvenile Justice, Standard 4.52, supra note 52.
5. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Conditions of Confinement: Findings from the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, by Karla McPherson and Andrea Sedlack, NCJ 227729 (Washington, D.C., 2010), 9.
6. David Roush. “Desktop Guide to Good Juvenile Detention Practice,” National Juvenile Detention Association, October 1996.
7. McPherson and Sedlack, Conditions of Confinement, 9.
8. Gary Gately. “ACLU Calls for Ban on Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities,” Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, November 26, 2013, accessed January 10, 2013, http://jjie.org/aclu-calls-for-ban-on-solitary-confinement-in-juvenile-facilities/.