End Solitary Confinement for Juvenile Offenders

During my time working in adult corrections, I encountered a situation that really and truly bothered me. We received a particularly jovial 18 year old male into booking one night. We put him in the general population, and he, almost immediately, got into a fight with another inmate.

As was par for the course, we put him in isolation for seven days. By the second day you could see a noticeable difference in this young man’s mental state; he continued to deteriorate as time went on, appearing withdrawn and depressed. On the third night, I received a call from our control room operator who said that I should check on him because he “was up to something.”  I got to the isolation cell and opened the viewing port just in time to see him slice his wrist with a sharpened piece from a plastic coffee cup.  He required 18 stiches to close the wound. 

To see this young man go from cracking jokes during the booking process, to attempting to take his own life only three days later, is something I will never forget. I can’t help but think that solitary confinement had a major role in the deterioration of his mental state.

Now, as an EKU student, I am learning that one-third of all youth incarcerated in juvenile facilities in the United States report having been locked up with no human contact whatsoever (Sedlack, McPherson, 2010), and that young people are held in solitary confinement for weeks or even months at a time at facilities throughout the country (Human Rights Watch, 2012). 

Because of their developing brains, solitary confinement can have a profound effect on a juvenile’s mental state. Youth in solitary confinement report feeling forgotten and abused (Kysel, 2012). It causes anguish, provokes serious mental and physical health problems, and works against rehabilitation for teenagers (Human Rights Watch, 2012).  Some youth, like the one in my story, engage in self-harm to deal with the stress of isolation (Kysel, 2012).

Knowing the detrimental effects of solitary confinement on juveniles, why do facilities still use it as a form of discipline or punishment?  It’s used because it’s easy. Locking “problem” youth up in a room by themselves is easier than trying to institute real change.   If the philosophy of the Juvenile Justice System is indeed Parens Patriae, then how can we possibly justify locking children up in a room by themselves, with no human contact outside of shoving food through a hole in the door? I don’t think we can. 

Fortunately, others agree.  The United Nations ruled the practice as  unethical and as cruel and unusual punishment (AACAP, 2012).    More recently, New York City decided to end solitary confinement of juveniles (Molloy, 2014), and California has proposed a bill that severely limits its use (Leno, 2015).  Until similar measures can be put into place, states should limit the use of isolation in three key ways.  First, its use should be reserved for extreme cases in which juveniles pose a clear danger to themselves or others.  Second, there should be a 24 hour limit on solitary confinement for juveniles that serves as a “cool down” period during which staff engage in frequent wellbeing checks, communicate with the juvenile, and involve a mental health clinician when appropriate.  Third, there should be a least a 48 hour window between stays in solitary confinement.  These limits would end the practice of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders as we know it today, and offer some hope to the youth who feel forgotten, locked away, in a tiny cell.

About the author: Lucas Wynn will graduate from EKU with a bachelor’s degree in Corrections and Juvenile Justice Studies in December 2015. He lives in Harlan, Kentucky. 


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2012). Retrieved from: http://www.aacap.org/aacap/Policy_Statements/2012/Solitary_Confinement_of_Juvenile_Offenders.aspx 

Hayes, L. M. (2009), Juvenile Suicide in Confinement: A National Survey, US Department of Justice. Retrieved from: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/213691.pdf 

Human Rights Watch(2012). US Teens in Solitary Confinement. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved from:http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/10/10/us-teens-solitary-confinement 

Kysel, I. (2014). End Solitary Confinement for Teenagers; Retrieved from:http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/17/opinion/end-solitary-confinement-for-teenagers.html?_r=0 

Leno, M. (2014). California Senate Bill 124., Leno Bill Limits Use of Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities., Retrieved from:http://sd11.senate.ca.gov/news/2015-01-16-leno-bill-limits-use-solitary-confinement-juvenile-facilities 

Molloy, T. (2014). New York City Ends Solitary Confinement for Juveniles. PBS: Frontline., Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/criminal-justice/stickup-kid/new-york-city-ends-solitary-confinement-for-minors/ 

Sedlack, A. J., Mcpherson, K.a S. (2010). Conditions of Confinement. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227729.pdf

Published on April 16, 2015