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ACLU Calls for Nationwide Ban on Solitary Confinement of Children

To minimize psychological and physical harm to children behind bars, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recommends in a recent report that solitary confinement should be banned in all juvenile facilities.

Though several states in recent years—including Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and West Virginia—have prohibited certain forms of juvenile isolation such as solitary, federal law does nothing to ban it nationally, according to the ACLU's November 2013 report titled "Alone & Afraid".

"Fortunately," the ACLU says, "recent comprehensive national regulations implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) include provisions regulating isolation in juvenile facilities," such as mandatory exercise, access to educational programming and daily medical or mental health check-ups.

Such provisions are meant to blunt the impact of isolation on children under 18. In a short period of time, locked-up juveniles can develop several negative reactions to solitary, including increased anxiety, rage and impulsiveness, severe and chronic depression, hypersensitivity to light and noises, nightmares, and a decline in brain activity after just seven days in solitary confinement.

According to the report, an increased risk of suicide "is particularly strongly associated with isolation." Citing U.S. Department of Justice data from a 2009 survey, the ACLU says more than 50% of the suicides in juvenile facilities "occurred while young people were isolated alone in their rooms," while more than 60% of young people who committed suicide nationwide had some history of being locked up in isolation.

The ACLU argues that juveniles should be treated legally like adults with serious mental health problems, insomuch as several federal courts have recently found that the Eighth Amendment protects them from isolation "because such persons are more likely than others to have great difficulty adjusting to and tolerating time in solitary confinement."

"Similar to persons with mental disabilities, and because they are still growing and developing," the ACLU report says, "children are especially vulnerable to the negative consequences of solitary confinement and other harmful isolation practices."

Because public officials "rarely systematically collect data on the use of solitary confinement or other isolation on young people in juvenile detention facilities," the ACLU also recommends that public reporting of such practices should be mandated, resulting in transparency that is "necessary to give public and elected officials, and the general public, the information required to meaningfully engage in debate and appropriate oversight."

Meanwhile, pending legislation would place outright or limited bans on the use of juvenile solitary confinement in New Hampshire and California, while the Texas legislature recently voted for a comprehensive review of solitary confinement practices in both adult and juvenile correctional facilities.


Source: "Alone & Afraid: Children Held in Solitary Confinement and Isolation in Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities," American Civil Liberties Union, November 2013;

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