Courtesy of Robert L. Listenbee, OJJDP Administrator
Kalief Browder was just 16 years old when he was sent to Rikers Island in 2010, accused of stealing a backpack. He spent 1,110 days behind bars as his court date was postponed 30 times—800 of those days in solitary confinement. He experienced unimaginable abuse, and described it as “hell on earth.” Although he never stood trial, and all charges were dismissed, his life was forever changed. Kalief struggled with mental illness likely compounded by his time in solitary confinement, and tragically took his own life in 2015.
Kalief’s story is just one of many stories of youth forever scarred by isolation. His story has inspired other youth to come forward and share their confinement experience, bringing this issue front and center.
Recently, President Obama banned the use of solitary confinement for youth within the federal prison system. This important step forward followed the release of the Department of Justice’s Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing, which called for the Department to “end the practice of placing juveniles in restrictive housing.”
Eliminating the use of solitary confinement on youth at the state and local levels is a priority for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. We are committed to working with states to develop effective policies to limit the practice and adopt alternatives. We encourage states, localities, and tribal communities to follow the guiding principles and policy recommendations outlined in the Department’s restrictive housing report.
OJJDP commends states that have begun implementing reforms that limit or ban restrictive housing, but would like to see this punitive practice discontinued by all components in our juvenile justice system. Data on its prevalence are difficult to collect because not all jurisdictions define the use of the practice in the same way. Many refer to solitary confinement using such terms as isolation, segregation, room confinement, or restrictive housing. In our 2014 Juvenile Residential Facility Census, we asked facilities if “any youth were locked away for more than four hours alone in isolation, seclusion, or a sleeping room to regain control of unruly behavior.” Twenty-three percent of reporting facilities responded that youth were held in some form of isolation during the reporting period.
There is a significant research gap on the impact of solitary confinement on youth in the juvenile justice system. Studies show that adults subject to long-term isolation or restrictive housing in prison can experience emotional damage, harmful psychological effects, and an inability to integrate with others after release from segregation. Research has also shown that the developing brain, in early childhood and throughout adolescence, is very sensitive to positive and negative environments. Positive experiences are key to healthy brain development, whereas negative experiences can cause profound and long-term adverse consequences.
In October 2014, I met with our partners at the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators (CJCA) to discuss alternative approaches to solitary confinement. In response to the members’ request for guidance following the meeting, CJCA developed a comprehensive toolkit, with support from OJJDP, to help states reduce the use of solitary confinement in juvenile justice facilities. The toolkit recommendations are grounded in research, best practices, and lessons learned from jurisdictions that have successfully reduced the use of isolation.
Through our Center for Coordinated Assistance to States, we are providing cohort-based training and technical assistance to juvenile justice professionals nationwide. And this year, we are planning to bring together stakeholders, experts, and state and local juvenile correctional administrators to address the challenges and discuss best practices related to ending the use of solitary confinement in juvenile justice facilities.
All of us at OJJDP are working tirelessly to reform a system that failed Kalief Browder and many others. Eliminating the use of solitary confinement is an important step toward improving conditions for youth in out-of-home confinement and creating an environment where they can heal and thrive.