The UN calls this practice torture. So why is it still happening in America?
James, Kalief, Alyssa. Between the ages of 16 and 17, they were locked up for hours a day, alone, in a cell often not more than 6 feet by 8 feet large. Fed food through a slot in the door, denied normal human interaction, confined for weeks, months, and years at a time, all three attempted suicide. James and Kalief tragically succeeded.
The inhuman treatment of these young people — these children — under the guise of “justice” should shock our national conscience. Their stories are tragic, shameful and should be extraordinary in the failures they represent. Unfortunately, while these young people were and are undoubtedly unique in their interests, skills and talents, their tragic experiences in solitary confinement are by no means uncommon.
In 2011, 95,000 young people were held in correctional detention in the United States. Of the young people incarcerated each year, thirty-five percent are isolated in solitary confinement at some point during their time imprisoned, a practice that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has called for to be banned across the globe, and one that is prohibited by international convention.
Young people held in solitary confinement suffer clear psychological and neurological damage, including depression, hallucinations, paranoia, anger, and anxiety. Time in solitary confinement hinders a young person’s cognitive, academic, and behavioral development, making future rehabilitation and returning to normal activities like school even more difficult. What’s worse — and as evidenced by the stories of James, Kalief and countless others — studies from the Justice Department have found that approximately half of all suicides by juveniles in confinement occurred in isolation and 62 percent of those who committed suicide had a history of solitary room confinement.
The use of solitary confinement as a form of punishment on children in detention is not only a practice that most countries consider to be torture, but one that is morally repugnant and fundamentally un-American.
Banning unnecessary juvenile solitary confinement isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the morally urgent, American thing to do.
So, I’ve introduced the bipartisan MERCY Act with Senators Richard Durbin, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, which would ban the practice of juvenile solitary confinement in the federal system except in rare cases where the young person poses a serious and immediate threat to themselves or others. (Even with this exception, the MERCY Act limits such protective confinement to no more than three hours.) Banning unnecessary juvenile solitary confinement isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the morally urgent, American thing to do.
We owe it to the thousands of young people who have found themselves trapped in our broken justice system that we do everything in our power to enable their rehabilitation — not condemn them to tragedy and failure. By banning juvenile solitary confinement, we will affirm the fundamental human dignity of our kids and the fundamental truth that we are a nation of liberty and justice for all.