The prudent approach would be for the states to keep children out of adult jails and channel them through the juvenile justice systems, where they could get the counseling and mental health services that so many of them clearly need. But, as it stands today, tens of thousands of young people each year are charged as adults, even for nonviolent offenses and property crimes that do not warrant adult time.
Many states have adopted various protective strategies, under which young inmates are separated from adults who would otherwise prey on them. One of these strategies is to segregate young people in solitary confinement — a soul-killing punishment that condemns young people to spend weeks or even months locked up alone in small cells for up to 23 hours a day, cut off from all contact with other prisoners.
A new study issued earlier this month by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union shows the degree to which extended isolation — which is hard going for mature adults — can easily lead to mental illness and other damage among emotionally immature young people. The report, Growing Up Locked Down, is based on interviews and correspondence in 2011 and 2012 with more than 125 individuals who were sent to jail or prison in 20 states while under the age of 18.
Prison officials use solitary confinement for several reasons that apply to all prisoners: to isolate inmates who need protection or could be dangerous to others; to deal with those who have mental problems or have threatened suicide; or to punish inmates who break rules, even minor rules like failing to make their beds or close their cell doors. Young people are naturally more prone to rule-breaking because they are impulsive and generally less capable of reasoned judgment.
Like others in solitary, young prisoners are routinely cut off from their families, sometimes denied books or forbidden from writing home. All of this deepens the terminal sense of isolation. Many of the young prisoners interviewed for the report spoke of struggling with acute anxiety, depression or hallucinations. Some spoke of deliberately injuring themselves or thinking about suicide. Others spoke of being overcome with an uncontrollable rage, which, of course, would get them bounced right back into solitary once they got out.
Corrections officials have a duty to protect the public from crime. But they also have a responsibility not to permanently scar the lives of young people who are far from fully developed when they land in custody. To meet that responsibility, states and localities should ban or sharply minimize solitary confinement for young people, and, more broadly, make sure that fewer of them land in adult jails in the first place.
Original aritcle on The New York Times