Criminal Justice Paper on Solitary Confinement in the Judicial System

Criminal Justice Paper on Solitary Confinement in the Judicial System


Solitary confinement involves the isolation or quarantine of inmates in individual cells in prisons or detention camps as a means of punishment in the judicial system. Critics of this form of judicial punishment, especially human rights groups, have argued that solitary confinement represents an extreme form of imprisonment or punishment that could lead to health and psychological problems for the inmate. The critics argue that it involves the denial of fundamental psychological, emotional and physical needs of human beings, essentially amounting to torture (Shames, Wilcox and Subramanian 10). On the other hand, supporters of the technique in judicial systems argue that it is a necessary means to fulfill one of the most essential objectives of prisons and jails, which is the safety of prison staff and incarcerated people under the institution’s care. As a form of punishment during incarceration, solitary confinement (which the judicial systems also refer to as segregated housing, protective custody, disciplinary segregation, special housing or administrative segregation) mostly applies in cases where prison authorities perceive inmates to pose unique security risks. These could involve cases of violent or disruptive behavior among incarcerated people or cases where the authorities perceive high risks of physical or sexual assault, necessitating its deployment as a protective or preventative measure (Shames, Wilcox and Subramanian 4). The use of alternative terms for the practice in the judicial system, including “segregated housing”, “restricted housing” and “special” or “intensive” management, reflects the controversy that solitary confinement attracts as a form of punishment.

The US judicial structure holds youths aged below 18 in solitary confinement regularly. The young inmates expend up to 22 hours or more alone each day, often in small cells behind compact steel doors. Critics have argued that this practice is inhumane and abusive and presents a threat to the wellbeing of juvenile offenders, violating their rights to humane treatment under US laws. They especially cite concerns around the effects of physical, emotional and social isolation on the lives of young inmates at a critical phase of their lives (HRW/ACLU Report 1; Gordon 502-503).

This paper assesses the opinions for and against solitary confinement as a method of punishment within the correctional system, particularly with reference to juvenile justice. The analysis finds that the malleability of the minds of youths makes them particularly susceptible to the stressful and traumatic conditions of solitary confinement. This promotes the risk of lasting damage on their personalities and emotional, psychological and behavioral orientation and capacity, in effect making this form of punishment undesirable, ineffective and a violation of children offenders’ rights.

Solitary Confinement as a form of Punishment for Child Offenders

Officials and authorities in the US corrections system refer to solitary confinement by various terms, while the policies and strategies of placement vary according to the type of facility and the jurisdiction of institutions. “Disciplinary” or “punitive” segregation concerns the punishment of incarcerated people for violations of facility rules, while “administrative segregation” refers to the removal of inmates whom authorities consider to pose risks for the safety of the facility from the general jail or prison population. “Protective custody” involves the isolation of inmates whom the authorities consider to be at risk of abuse or violence, such as mentally ill, transgender, intellectually disabled, former law enforcement officers, or gay inmates, from the general prison population.Overall, evidence from the US corrections system has portrayed substantial increases in the use of solitary confinement (Shames, Wilcox and Subramanian 4).

For most of the past century, youths aged below the age of 18 who violated the law in the US underwent trial, adjudication, detention and correction under the juvenile system of justice. In rare cases, particularly when it fit public interest, juvenile system judges could refer a case to the adult criminal justice system (HRW/ACLU Report 11). In the late 80s and throughout the 90s, increased rates of certain classes of juvenile crimes, especially crimes involving serious violence, has compelled the US justice system to employ more severe approaches in the punishment of juvenile crimes. This policy featured the objective of deterring crimes through a retributive model of punishment, adopting an “adult time for adult crime” approach (HRW/ACLU Report 11). The outcome of this new approach in the US justice system has been the treatment of adolescents and teenagers as adults (HRW/ACLU Report 12).

Across the US, young people face imprisonment in adult facilities and under adult justice procedures and systems for law violations relating to drug use, property crimes and other grave crimes. The most common mechanisms in the imposition of “adult time for adult crime” approach include exclusion from the juvenile justice system based on offenses committed, “direct files” of youth cases in the adult criminal justice system by prosecutors and application of “once an adult always an adult” doctrine (subsequent prosecution in the adult system following one prosecution in the system). Human and children’s rights groups have opposed solitary confinement and the prosecution of youths in adult systems based on the principle that the youth is different from adults in terms of physiology, psychological orientation and the ability to cope with severe forms of punishment (HRW/ACLU Report 12). They argue that besides the provisions of both international and domestic law on the treatment of children, physiological realities about growth and changes in adolescents and their needs as they approach adulthood imply requirements for moderate punitive approaches for juveniles. Ideally, the juvenile justice system ought to seek the rehabilitation of youths and facilitate their development for reintegration in society, considering their age and raw social experiences. In contrast, adult justice systems typically focus on punishment, prioritizing the punitive aspect of justice rather than the rehabilitation aspect despite the mandate of the latter under international law and human rights (HRW/ACLU Report 12-14).

The needs of youths differ from those of adults in terms of both nature and degree, because their physical, emotional and psychological capacities are still in a developmental stage. Adolescence is a transitional phase of life that involves rapid and dramatic transformations at an individual level in terms of emotion, interpersonal relationships, cognition and biology, alongside broader changes in the context and environment wherein young adults spend time (HRW/ACLU Report 14). Adolescents’ bodies also change substantially through the progress of secondary sexual attributes, which make it necessary for the society and institutions to enforce methods and approaches that can mitigate the youths’ anxieties and promote their coping and adjustment capacities to yield positive outcomes during development.

Alongside physiological changes, adolescents further experience dramatic structural growth in their brains and cognitive capacities. Recent findings that the completion of brain development does not conclude in early adolescence, instead continuing throughout adolescence, have significant implications for the understanding of volition, culpability, impulsivity, developmental needs, psychological needs and capacity to change among young adults. Analysts have noted that the most dramatic differences between the brains of teenagers and young adults relate to the growth of the frontal lobe, whose responsibilities include strategizing, cognitive processing, organization of thought and action and planning (HRW/ACLU Report 15). Scientists and brain researchers have identified a specific area of the frontal lobe, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, as one of the last regions of the brain to mature, failing to reach the adult level of maturity before an individual reaches the third decade of life. This is a significant observation in context of the possible effects of solitary confinement of youths since this section of the brain plays a role in individual capacities to inhibit impulses, strategize, prioritize and weigh the meanings and consequences of decisions (HRW/ACLU Report 15-16).

This assessment implies that the decision-making processes of teenagers typically suffer from the influences of immaturity, impulsivity and underdeveloped capacity to resist environmental pressures and evaluate the consequences of actions and choices. The importance of these assessments in the solitary confinement of youths is that the malleability of their brains makes them particularly susceptible to hostile environments and methods in the justice system. Implementation of methods that cause stress and trauma in the lives of adolescents can cause lasting damage to their personalities and emotional, psychological and behavioral orientations and capacities (HRW/ACLU Report 16). With this backdrop, human and children’s rights groups have argued that justice systems orientated towards rehabilitation and positive change are necessary and more effective than those that prioritize retribution and punishment in the treatment of juvenile offenders.

In the US, most accused and convicted criminals undergo incarceration in jails or prisons, which hold only convicts who have sentences longer than one year. In 2012, a joint investigation by Human Rights Watch and the Civil Liberty Union in the US estimated that over 93,000 youths aged below 18 had undergone incarceration in adult jails in the previous five years, while adult prisons held at least 2,200 youths aged below 18 each year (HRW/ACLU Report 16). Following prosecution in adult justice systems, youths in many US states serve imposed terms in adult jails. While some states oblige the separation of youths aged below 18 from adults, others mandate specific facilities to decide whether and how to protect youth inmates. Various facilities in Michigan, whose criminal justice structure considers 17-year old youths as adults, isolate 16-year old teenagers from adults while holding 17-year olds together with adults (HRW/ACLU Report 17). While imprisonment is a difficult experience for anyone, the experiences of youth inmates are more harrowing owing to their underdeveloped and hence delicate, capacities to cope with the stressful environment and the fact that they make up only a small proportion of the jail or prison population. Youths in adult jails regularly face elevated risks of both physical and sexual cruelty. Studies of youth experiences in adult jails have suggested that inmates aged below 18 are five times more likely to suffer sexual assault and fifty percent more likely to suffer attacks with weapons than those in juvenile facilities (HRW/ACLU Report 19). This likelihood enhances the prospects of solitary confinement for adolescent convicts in adult facilities.

US prisons commonly employ segregation of individuals from the inmate population, in response to management problems at individual inmate or facility levels. This segregation adopts the form of prolonged quarantine, both physically and socially. Isolation for a minimum of 22 hours in a day fits the broadly accepted description of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement of youths is pervasive in US facilities, rather than a unique or transient phenomenon. Human Rights Watch however, observes that the experiences of convicts in solitary confinement conditions are largely similar despite differences in methods of segregation among counties, states, and facilities (HRW/ACLU Report 20). The Organization prepared a report on the effects of solitary confinement on youths based on personal interviews and correspondence with over 125 individuals who were inmates while aged below 18 years in 19 states, management officials in prisons and jails across 10 states, quantitative data and expert advice from psychologists (HRW/ACLU Report 2-3). The investigation yielded descriptions by youth inmates of haunting experiences in solitary confinement. Inmates described the loss of a sense of time, perceptions and feelings of doom and worthlessness, feelings of “going mad”, perceptions of treatment “like an animal”, hopelessness, frustrations and perceptions of the worthlessness of living (HRW/ACLU Report 22).

The report established that solitary confinement and the deprivations that it enforced in convicts’ experiences had a particularly profound and unique impact on young inmates, often causing grave damage to their physical and mental wellbeing and development. Owing to the unique vulnerabilities and special psychological and emotional needs of young inmates, the report concluded that solitary confinement was a particularly harmful and cruel practice when jail and prison authorities applied it to youths (HRW/ACLU Report 22). Based on the findings, the report observed that solitary confinement involves risks for the cause and exacerbation of psychological disorders, disabilities, and symptoms, even among inmates who have no previous history of such difficulties.

Solitary confinement is a traumatic experience that provokes substantial levels of discomfort and anxiety, while youths have fewer and less developed psychological capacities and resources than adults do to assist in the management of such adverse emotions and feelings. The research identified a high incidence of various mental health problems among former inmates under solitary confinement conditions, including suicidal tendencies, thoughts of self-harm, hallucinations (both auditory and visual), depression, acute anxiety, traumatic memories, anger and rage issues, and sleep problems (HRW/ACLU Report 20). During the confinement, the inmates used unusual mechanisms to cope with the traumatic experience and to dissociate from it, including having imaginary friends, talking to oneself, daydreaming and “make-believe” reactions such as perceiving bumps on the wall as pictures, making characters with hands, and playing out games that one has known (HRW/ACLU Report 25-26). Besides psychological harm, other conditions and environments around solitary confinement serve to exacerbate the health and wellbeing of young inmates such as inadequate nutrition, lack of sufficient physical exercise, unavailability or inadequate access to care (including treatment of psychological health difficulties) and denial of education and contact with family members (HRW/ACLU Report 37-41).

The Eighth Amendment shields individuals from harsh and unfamiliar punishment methodologies and procedures. In the past, the Supreme Court has acknowledged the potential harm of solitary confinement, recognizing it as a form of punishment that warrants further assessment and scrutiny under the standards and protections of the Eighth Amendment. Nevertheless, difficulties in demonstrating and presenting evidence of violations of the Amendment have influenced the failure of federal courts to limit the use of this form of punishment (Shames, Wilcox, and Subramanian 10). To prove such violations, inmates have to provide evidence of reasonably serious suffering attributable to solitary confinement and illustrate deliberate indifference in the actions of prison officials to their own safety and wellbeing. Such “deliberate indifference” is only verifiable by illustrating prison officials’ failure to take rational measures to abate a substantial risk of grave harm for an inmate, despite knowledge of it (Shames, Wilcox, and Subramanian 10). This means that only direct action or inaction by the prison officials or preexistence of mental illness in an inmate could enable successful claims under the Eighth Amendment.

Supporters of solitary confinement could argue that it is necessary as a form of last resort punishment and in the management of the safety of inmates (Shames, Wilcox, and Subramanian 10). Nonetheless, such an argument is unsound owing to the widespread evidence of its adverse effects on inmates. Irrespective of wrongdoing, convicts are human beings that require humane treatment. As a form of punishment, solitary confinement is especially harmful to youths owing to their psychological and emotional incapacities to cope with the adverse effects of conditions in such punishment. It also violates several international standards and laws in human rights and the rights of children, whom the UN recognizes as individuals aged below 18 years. One such standard is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which particularly states the need for unique treatment of children in criminal justice systems, emphasizing the rehabilitation aspect of corrections as a vital and ideal element in juvenile justice systems. Article 10 of the Convention requires justice systems to separate children offenders from adults and to implement treatment approaches that fit their legal status and ages, while Article 14 requires juvenile criminal processes to consider and ensure the desirability of rehabilitation methods employed. The ICCPR identifies positive measures, age-differentiated methods and focus on rehabilitation and reintegration, rather than punishment, as essential components for criminal procedures for children (HRW/ACLU Report 70-71).

The critics’ possible argument that solitary confinement is a last resort approach is also inaccurate because of the availability of several alternative methods to address juvenile crimes effectively. Judicial systems should deploy specially trained personnel, especially social workers and psychological health professionals, offer mentorship, leadership, counseling, effective disciplinary methods and rehabilitative services and programs aimed at promoting practical skills and positive adjustments among child offenders (HRW/ACLU Report 82-85). These sustainable solutions can assure lower recidivism rates among child offenders and allow them to reintegrate successfully and valuably in their respective communities following their sentences.


Adolescence represents a critical transitional phase of life in which the lives, bodies, personalities and brains of individuals are undergoing development. This implies that the brains of youths at this phase of life are malleable. Solitary confinement constitutes a trauma-filled experience that provokes substantial quantities of distress and anxiety. The malleability of youths’ brains makes them particularly susceptible to the stressful and traumatic conditions of solitary confinement, promoting the danger of lasting damage to their personalities and emotional, psychological and behavioral orientation and capacity. Instead of rehabilitating youths for productive social reintegration and decreased recidivism, solitary confinement is in contrast undesirable, ineffective and a violation of children offenders’ rights. This is because youths have fewer and less developed psychological capacities and resources than adults do to assist in the management of such adverse emotions and feelings. An effective and sustainable alternative involves the provision of professional mentorship, leadership, counseling, disciplinary, and rehabilitative services and programs to promote practical skills and positive adjustments among child offenders.





Works Cited

Gordon, Shira. “Solitary Confinement, Public Safety, and Recidivism”. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform 47.2 (2014): 495-528. Print.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Growing Up Locked Down: Youth in Solitary Confinement in Jails and Prisons across the United States. HRW/ACLU Report, 2012. Print.

Shames, Alison, Wilcox, Jessa and Subramanian, Ram. Solitary Confinement: Common misconceptions and emerging Safe Alternatives. Vera Institute of Justice Document, May 2015. Print.