For obvious reasons, the voices of children jailed in solitary cells are rarely heard. But there are signs that government leaders are listening to a rising chorus of voices of citizens protesting the cruelty of locking up kids in jail cells for nearly every hour of the day.
Recently, the state of New York agreed to ban the use of extreme isolation for juveniles and to limit its use with adults. At the national level, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and other senators called for the end to solitary confinement for juveniles nationwide. These events are heartening and critical steps forward.
Prisoners in isolation often are confined to small cells without windows, with little or no access to the outside world or adequate treatment programs. Such extreme isolation can have serious psychological effects on inmates and lead to mental illness, self-mutilation and suicide. According to several state and national studies, at least half of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.
Things are beginning to turn around, though, and, as a result of Sen. Durbin’s leadership, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported a 25 percent reduction in the use of solitary confinement in the past year.
Much remains to be done to eliminate this extreme and inhumane practice.
One of the most troubling uses of solitary confinement occurs in state juvenile prisons and local juvenile detention centers. It is not uncommon in Illinois facilities for children under the age of 18 to be locked alone in isolation for days in “confinement” units. They are kept in their cells for up to 23 hours a day, with no educational programming, meaningful activities or social interaction. In confinement units, you do not encounter children reading books or engaged in any constructive activity.
The physical conditions in confinement are often exceedingly grim. Confinement cells are typically small, dirty, coldly institutional, and permit little or no natural light. Bedding is inadequate and limited to a thin blanket. Conversation and social interaction are severely restricted, limited to speaking briefly with staff during routine “checks” through holes in a steel cell door.
National best practice guidelines for facilities state that any use of isolation should be limited to the short time necessary to calm a child during a crisis situation. Even then, it is recommended that this be restricted to less than four hours and not be allowed to continue on for days as it does in Illinois.
It is time for Illinois to end this draconian practice.
The use of solitary confinement for juveniles violates international law, which is embodied in the prohibition against inhumane treatment in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It also arguably violates the standard of decency embodied in our own Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.
Under our rule of law, children must receive fair treatment that is proportionate to their circumstances and to their offense. The solitary confinement of children has no place in a fair system of justice. It is time to outlaw this practice.
Elizabeth Clarke is president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a non-profit group working to reform the juvenile justice system in Illinois. John Maki is executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois.