Durbin: U.S. should ban solitary confinement for juveniles

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) said the United States should ban solitary confinement for juveniles because of the harmful mental health effects of “even short periods of isolation, including depression and risk of suicide,” among youths.  

“When it comes to solitary confinement, we know children are particularly vulnerable,” said Durbin. “I don’t believe juveniles should be placed in solitary confinement except under the most exceptional circumstances.” His position is supported by the American Academy of Child and Adolescence Psychiatry.

At a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights on Feb. 25th, Durbin cited a Justice Department estimate that “35% of juveniles in custody report being held in solitary confinement for some time.”

As of February, there are 62 juveniles in the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ custody and one individual in solitary confinement, according to Charles Samuels, BOP’s Director. The juveniles are held in private prisons.

“Right now we only have one individual, and it should only be used under the rarest circumstances when there is the belief that there is going to be potential harm to the individual and/or to others,” said Samuels. “The requirement that we have is that any individual placed in restrictive housing who’s a juvenile, there should be 50 minute checks done. We are ensuring that they are also working with a multi-disciplinary committee to ensure that all of the issues are assessed, addressed, and that we are removing the individual out of restrictive housing at the earliest date possible.”

Samuels acknowledged that there is “no specific limit” on how long a juvenile may be held in solitary confinement, but if the youth is held longer than five days, then prison officials are required to justify the need for prolonged isolation.

“We do not support long-term placement of any juvenile in restrictive housing,” said Samuels.


Youths sent to solitary confinement are held alone in a small, windowless cell for 23 hours a day. Often, they are allowed to shower only a couple times a week. They are banned from contacts with inmates and visitors and even writing or reading materials.

One high school girl, who attended a California legislature hearing on solitary confinement with the Youth Justice Coalition on Feb. 11th, described the harsh conditions of solitary confinement in juvenile hall.

The girl was arrested for truancy tickets and sent to juvenile hall, where she was placed in solitary confinement because she felt “unsure and uncomfortable” in the detention facility. She said her experience was “traumatizing.”

“No cellmate, no day room, no hope. It makes no sense that if you’re depressed they put you in a situation that makes you even more depressed. I felt completely unwanted and unnoticed,” said the teenage girl. “I started to feel tense when any of the guards came close to my cell, paranoid that I had done something wrong when the reality [is] I had been by myself for the last 23 hours of the day. It is by far the worst feeling I have ever experienced. Being locked down makes you feel that you’re worthless to society and you don’t even want to be yourself. You start thinking about ways to escape even if it means suicide.”

A teenage boy, who suffers from epilepsy, was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks because the guards thought he was faking his seizures.

“From the moment I was put in the hole, I felt isolated and depressed,” the boy told lawmakers in California. “After a few days in solitary confinement, I started to feel like I was going crazy. I started to make up stories, started talking to myself, and imagination was blasting…If a person wasn’t already insane or had mental health problems before coming into solitary confinement, spending enough time in there you would lose your sanity. Solitary confinement only creates more problems, not fixes them. It is cruel punishment to be treated like a caged animal.”

The boy said he was allowed to shower only once every four days and received only two change of clothes during his two-week stay in solitary confinement. He said the guards sometimes didn’t bring his medicine on time, which resulted in more seizures.

“I kept knocking on the door after having passing out from having seizures a few times, but I was still ignored. I couldn’t do anything about it. This was one of the worst experiences of my life, and I wish this on nobody,” he said.

For some teenagers, like 17-year-old James Stewart, the harsh conditions in isolation proved to be too much to bear. Stewart committed suicide after spending two months in solitary confinement.


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