Ending Solitary Confinement for Juveniles

In a January 25th Washington Post editorial announcing the end of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison, President Obama only needed to mention one name: Kalief Browder.

In 2010 this 16-year old from the Bronx was accused of stealing a backpack. He was sent to Rikers to await trial, for three years. Beaten by guards and inmates, he insisted on his innocence and would not accept a plea deal from prosecutors. He spent two of these three years in solitary confinement. Alone 26 hours a day, he tried to commit suicide several times. Finally, in 2013, he was released and all charges were dropped.

But as his Mom, Venida Browder, recently shared at the 2016 American Justice Summit, he was let out a different person. Withdrawn, anxious, and prone to pacing around their apartment, Kalief displayed all the characteristics of someone who had recently returned from combat. While he struggled to attend Bronx Community College and resume his life, the trauma from his time at Rikers was too much for him. He committed suicide at home in early June 2015.

The tragic and senseless death of Kalief highlights what psychologists, criminologists, corrections officials, police officers, and families of the incarcerated already know: the practice of solitary confinement creates more problems than it solves, especially for juveniles. An article on the practice in The Atlantic describes the outcomes:

“Depriving prisoners of human contact exacerbates and even produces mental illness, increases the risk of suicide, and generally engenders a sense of hopelessness.”

Corrections officials have been at the forefront of trying to minimize use of solitary confinement or when possible, make it more humane. One such example is the “Incentives in Segregation” program, Catherine Bauman, warden of Alger Correctional Facility in Michigan, implemented. She devised a six “stage” system for her prisoners in solitary to move into lower-security status. By incentivizing them with perks (first stage reward was recreation equipment to use during hour out of the cell, followed by being able to keep t.v. in their cells, and ultimately, they would be able to call family members, which is normally forbidden in solitary) she moved all of the prisoners in her segregation wing into the general population wing.

Another innovator is, Gregg Marcantel, Secretary of Corrections for New Mexico. As an experiment in June 2014, Mr. Marcantel spent 48 hours in solitary confinement to better understand what the experience is like. His goal is to cut the number of prisoners in solitary confinement by half in the state of New Mexico.

What did he learn?

“I think if you overuse it, what can happen is that people can just adapt to those environments,” Marcantel says. “And then all you’re doing now is creating a socially isolated human being that’s going to go back to your neighborhood, and you’re going to be scratching your head and wondering why he (committed a crime against) people. What happens is that something that was designed to be part of operant conditioning starts working the other way – you’re making people worse. ”