“[I felt] doomed, like I was being banished … Like you have the plague or that you are the worst thing on earth. Like you are set apart [from] everything else. I guess [I wanted to] feel like I was part of the human race – not like some animal.” One would think the above experience was recounted by a convicted serial killer, isolated in a maximum-security prison. Surely not a child, right? Unfortunately, that was the reality for Molly J, who found herself in solitary confinement at the age of 16. And she’s not alone. These conditions have been imposed upon many of the 44,000 incarcerated youth across the country. Even worse, solitary confinement normally would only be used for minors as a way to discipline them, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, its use has increased as a way to control the spread of the disease. The most frightening aspect of this rise in solitary confinement is that these youth have done nothing to justify it.
The serious harms caused by solitary confinement are well documented. According to Dr. Craig Haney, who has inspected many supermax prisons across the United States and conducted systematic psychological assessments of nearly 1,000 inmates in solitary confinement, “for some prisoners…solitary confinement precipitates a descent into madness,” due to the endless monotony and lack of human contact. Studies show that confined inmates experience emotional, cognitive, and psychosis-related symptoms. Without social contact, prisoners experience feelings of hurt and distress that affect the brain in the same way as physical pain. Prisoners held in solitary confinement frequently suffer from feelings of anxiety, panic, hostility, poor impulse control, obsessive thoughts, and symptoms of depression, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors. They often endure cognitive effects, such as problems with memory and concentration, and symptoms of psychosis, including extreme paranoia. Many problems inmates develop while in solitary confinement often remain long after their release from confinement.
For juveniles, the effects of solitary confinement can be even worse, because their developmental immaturity makes them more vulnerable to prolonged psychological stress as a result of their isolation. This can interfere with the development of their brains. According to MST Services, an organization that provides treatment programs to high-risk youth, “many people who were subjected to solitary as juveniles report having huge shifts in their personalities as a result of this psychological damage.” Not surprisingly, according to a 2009 study by the Department of Justice, about 50 percent of suicides in youth facilities occur while the youth are in isolation, and 62 percent of them have a history of solitary confinement.
In the United States, solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prison has been banned since 2016. However, this prohibition is mostly nominal as there are virtually no juveniles in the federal prison system. Because federal prisons are often ill-equipped to house them, juveniles in federal custody are usually sent to local prisons or jails, where it is legal for them to be placed in solitary confinement in at least 20 states. Almost half of the youth prisons and jails report using isolation to manage youth prisoners.
Prisons around the country were severely unprepared to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and have been hotbeds of infection, with infection rates in prisons four to five times higher than in the general public. To slow the spread of the virus, many youth facilities have resorted to placing their children in isolation cells or confining them to their rooms alone. Facilities created to provide rehabilitative services and education for their youth inmates have thus become more like adult prisons. For example, at the Baltimore Youth Detention Facility, a public defender reported, “For months, the children have not received adequate, if any, educational instruction. They are not being provided rehabilitative services. They are not given therapy or allowed or see their families in person.” Instead, they are let out one at a time, once or twice a day, for 45 minute periods. The public defender observed that a child who asked for help from a guard with school work (often a packet of worksheets) during confinement was told to shout to other detainees through the room’s air vents for assistance. Children in confinement during the pandemic have reported to the Marshall Project that they feel paranoid, bored, and lonely. In Louisiana, youth prisoners frustrated by COVID-19 isolation measures organized a riot and mass escape.
To make matters worse, the pandemic has made it difficult to know conditions inside youth facilities because independent oversight officials either have not been allowed access inside or have chosen to suspend inspections due to fear of the virus. Traditional means of communicating with the outside world about conditions inside youth facilities, such as during visits from family and lawyers and educational programs run by educators and volunteers, have also been largely curtailed, leaving youth prisoners even more vulnerable to abuse. As Dr. Haney has stated, it is “hard to imagine a more vulnerable population…in the face of this pandemic.”
Some public health experts fear that using solitary confinement as a means to control the spread of COVID-19 among prisoners might even worsen the situation, as it likely deters them from reporting symptoms or seeking medical help for fear of being confined, thus quickening the spread of the disease.
Even before this pandemic, too many youth were being imprisoned. With the added threats posed by COVID-19, we should release low-risk juveniles from prisons to reduce the number of incarcerated youth and ensure adequate space for social distancing for prisoners and staff. Notably, a Maryland court of appeals last year ruled that every time a child is incarcerated, juvenile justice officials must prove that the danger they pose to public safety is greater than the danger they face being confined during a pandemic.
For those youth who are in prison, we must find better ways than solitary confinement to protect them from COVID-19, while keeping them socially connected to others. According to a report last year by public health researchers at the University of California San Francisco, solitary confinement should be replaced with humane medical isolation. In medical isolation, prisoners infected with COVID-19 can be housed together with others who are also infected. They should have access to television, cell phones, tablets, and regular communication with health professionals. Particularly during this period of unprecedented health crises, youth prisoners must have even more support from their families and means of communicating with loved ones. If facilities are unable to provide these resources, outside entities such as nonprofit organizations and philanthropies should try to help provide them. Moreover, medical isolation should not be for an indefinite period of time, but temporary per CDC guidelines regarding the length of quarantine and medical isolation.
Youth facilities must come up with ways to provide education and treatment services in a safe manner, such as one-on-one tutoring and therapy and telehealth visits. Lastly, with the Delta and successor variants threatening to revitalize the pandemic, it is imperative that incarcerated juveniles are given the current vaccine and prioritized to receive any boosters. Despite the fact that prisons have been hit by COVID-19 at a much higher rate than the general public, most states did not prioritize incarcerated people for vaccination: as of May this year, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative, less than half of the incarcerated population in the United States had received the vaccine, with some states having only 20% or less of the prison population receiving the first dose.
Without additional measures such as these, youth prisoners may be forced to suffer unnecessary and harmful solitary confinement—through no fault of their own.