Invisible Prisoners: Why Are So Many Children, Especially Girls, Placed in Solitary Confinement?

When we hear about solitary confinement, we often imagine it as a form of extreme punishment inflicted on the most vicious and dangerous criminals in prison. The last thing you would expect is for this practice to be inflicted on children. But it is.

When we hear about solitary confinement, we often imagine it as a form of extreme punishment inflicted on the most vicious and dangerous criminals in prison. The last thing you would expect is for this practice to be inflicted on children.

But it is. All across this country, children are being placed in solitary for a host of different reasons ranging from ‘protection’ to the most minor misbehaviors.  

This practice is even more disturbing when you consider the distinct pathways of girls into the juvenile justice system. We often talk about the “school-to-prison pipeline” for boys —but for girls, it is a totally different narrative, more readily identified as the “sexual-violence-to prison pipeline.” According to the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention, approximately 600,000 girls are arrested in the U.S. annually. Most of these girls are remanded for non-violent offenses such as truancy, running away, loitering, alcohol and substance use, and violations to prior court orders for non-violent status offenses. Moreover, evidence shows that 73 percent of girls in juvenile detention have previously suffered some form of physical or sexual abuse. This abuse is often the factor that propelled the child into the juvenile justice system, as it is often the abuse that is the root cause of the girls’ running away, becoming truant, substance abuse, etc. 

Once inside, girls are forced to maneuver a system that does not address their specific needs or take into account the complex trauma they have endured. Family court judges and detention center staff are rarely provided appropriate trauma training and are generally unaware of the damaging impact of policies such as strip searches, physical restraints, and particularly solitary confinement on survivors of physical and sexual abuse and trauma. 

There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates the severe psychiatric consequences of placing individuals, and particularly children in solitary confinement.  Prisoners who have experienced solitary confinement have been shown to engage in self-mutilation at much higher rates than the average population. These prisoners are also known to attempt or commit suicide more often than those who were not held in isolation. In fact, studies show that juveniles are 19 times more likely to kill themselves in isolation than in general population and that juveniles in general, have the highest suicide rates of all inmates in jails.

Despite all these facts, when girls in the juvenile justice system express evidence of or the desire to self harm, the typical response is to put them in solitary confinement. While these girls are being placed in solitary for their own protection, there is no consideration given to the fact that such practices deepen existing trauma. When subjected to isolation, these youth are often locked down for 23 hours per day in small cells with no natural light.  This confinement can last several days, weeks or even months, which leads to severe anxiety, paranoia, and further exacerbation of mental distress. The ACLU has reported that in certain juvenile detention facilities, girls are restrained with brutal force and are “regularly locked up in solitary confinement — a punishment used for minor misbehaviors as well as for girls who express wanting to hurt themselves.”

For example, after conducting interviews with a number of girls in juvenile detention, the ACLU uncovered that some of the reasons behind girls’ solitary confinement were as trivial as giving their crying friend a hug and singing “Happy Birthday.” The report goes on to say that “[n]ot receiving proper treatment and left alone with their emotions, many girls are driven to cut themselves, bang their heads against the concrete walls, and attempt suicide,” which often lead detention facility staff to respond with “physical restraint, pepper spray, and further solitary confinement.” These approaches are simply unacceptable when you take into account the abuse suffered by the vast majority of these girls and their dire need for services and interventions.

This week, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Human Rights, and Civil Rights is holding the first-ever Congressional hearing on the issue of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. One of the issues that we hope is brought to light during this hearing is the practice of solitary confinement of girls in the juvenile justice system. Numerous studies show the damaging effects of solitary confinement on children and particularly children with proven histories of mental and physical trauma.  Due to the fact that such a large percentage of girls entering juvenile detention have endured sexual and/or physical trauma, isolation techniques are not an appropriate disciplinary or protective measure on this vulnerable population of children. This abuse of abuse victims must stop. It is time to finally look at this invisible population. A population of girls in need of services — not further victimization under the guise of rehabilitation.