Masturbate, Sleep, Deteriorate

Traumatic and monotonous, the solitary confinement of children in the United States is shockingly common

Solitary confinement. A child locked in a room the size of a storage closet — these are the simplest terms to describe it.

“I’ll do my 72,” a girl shouted as she is restrained during an outburst in the recreation yard. She knows where they’ll take her, how many hours she will sit there, counting exactly how many cinderblocks stand between her and human contact.

On any given night in the U.S., there are about 60,500 youth confined in juvenile correctional facilities or other residential programs. With an average cost of $80,000 per year to lock up a child, the U.S. spends more than $5 billion annually on youth detention. Solitary confinement cells are the most punitive corners of the nation’s expansive and psychologically punishing archipelago of locked facilities.

Seg, the hole, the cooler, restricted housing, confinement room, SHU, administrative segregation, observation, iso, crisis intervention — whatever you call it, it is still a cinder block room. It is 80 square feet.

Every state and county abides by different rules governing the practice of solitary. Shockingly few states have banned it.

The light is fluorescent, the walls are the color of spit. The door is steel. It may be solid with a small window, or it may have a horizontal slat that unlocks, drops and allows food to be passed through.

For some kids, the slat is where they pass their hands through in order to have cuffs removed — a procedure that marks the last human contact before her or his stint in solitary. The procedure reversed and they have the cuffs reapplied before the door is opened — a conclusion to the 72 and a perverse welcome back to the social world.

The door may have a single lock or multiple deadbolts to reinforce it. There is nothing to absorb the noise, the cold, the heat, the boredom. The room exists for deterrence, punishment, safety or a combination of the three. The doors reflect and excrete the smells of angry, suffering children.

Upon entry into the detention system, many children are placed into Assessment and Evaluation (A&E) for extended periods that can run from hours to weeks, depending on the facility.

Part of the introductory process is to hold kids in solitary to see if they are gang-affiliated and to assess if they might fall into the category of “predator” or “prey.” The result is a child in a room, shoeless, often wearing a suicide smock which is a “moving blanket” material that can’t be torn or swallowed.

A child coming in as the result of an incident at a school can be brought in and held, in isolation, until a parent can be reached and the assessment made whether to hold or release. This is not viewed as punishment; it is merely procedure.

The more painful use of isolation results from a kid in the general population acting out, defying or refusing the regulations of the institution. At this point the duration of confinement becomes more extreme. It goes from hours to days, days to weeks, weeks to months, and in some cases … years.

When a child is held in these conditions, choices of activity are limited. Often the anger is manifest in poor behavior, sometimes fury at their captors.

A girl wearing a suicide smock has beaten her head against the wall, leaving a horizontal trail of red blobs. As if a tennis ball had been repeatedly dipped in paint and applied as a design detail, red dots punctuate a four-foot high line on the white wall.

One teen has been in “iso” for eight weeks.

“I sing as loud as I want and I sing the same song over and over again,” says the teen. “I can sing a song ten times. No matter. Sometime I just scream … they don’t like that behavior.”

Then the sentences are extended for non-compliance — a catastrophic spiral.

If the children held in isolation learn anything, it is how to succeed in being isolated — how to exist without social skills, without society. This is what we inflict rather than schooling, interaction with peers, staff, books … any sort of stimulation.

Somehow, current practice has adopted this as a standard and someone thinks this is okay. Somehow, procedure evolved that allowing a child one hour of large muscle movement was the norm; one hour, capriciously doled out to relieve the 23 hours of no movement — dead time.

Kalief Browder was held for three years, mostly in isolation. Results of isolation include but are not limited to psychosis, anxiety and dissociation. In Kalief’s tragic case, the result was suicide. Kalief did not kill himself, the broken courts system of New York City did.

Suicide rates skyrocket for kids who are in, or have been exposed to, extreme isolation. These children, who should receive all the resources we can possibly get to them in fact receive, by design and policy, nothing but a calculated and prolonged void.

At critical junctures when a child needs help and guidance, we essentially lock them in the closet. Rather than assist them in learning social skills and coping mechanisms for challenges and disappointments, we put them in a 8x10 foot box of nothingness.

I photographed around the country in 34 states over nine years and interviewed over 1,000 kids. The observations are overwhelming. The rooms are the same, the kids damaged by the experience, the practice widespread, rampant.

On a related assignment in Guantanamo, I photographed a cell for a terrorist — what is supposed to be the worst of the world’s miscreants. Comparing images side-by-side, the major difference was at Guantanamo; the alleged threat to our national security had a window. Often in the US natural light is considered either a luxury or a dilution of the punishing, de-stimulating experience.

At a certain point it was not possible to continue the documentation without feeling the experience. A sympathetic detentions director allowed me to experience intake and the facility’s attendant 24-hour isolation period. After I described it to him, the staff revisited their practice and reduced the isolation time of intake to the minimum possible — and they are trying to eliminate it entirely. Other institutions are following suit.

What did we imagine solitary confinement would do to our children? Is an empty room with no stimulation the best we can offer a child in need and in crisis? In the critical period of need, when socialization skills are imperative we put them in a room and offer them nothing. Really. NOTHING.

What might their response be?

Masturbate, sleep, deteriorate. Repeat.