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Solitary Confinement Is Being Rebranded in US Prisons

The term “solitary confinement,” with its tainted connotation, is off-brand for an institution trying to gloss the image of juveniles.
Photo by Flickr user CHeitz

It’s a common practice within the US criminal justice system: treating children as adults, in both prosecution and punishment.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released “Branded for Life: Florida’s Prosecution of Children as Adults under its 'Direct File' Statute,” a 110-page report on the adultification of Florida prisons and the consequences of the law that hands prosecutors the power to choose which children get tried as adults, renders judges powerless to review or reverse the prosecutors’ selections, and was used in 98 percent of Florida cases in which children were tried as adults in 2012 and 2013.


HRW’s report should bolster efforts to eradicate adultification generally (and indeed recent Supreme Court rulings have been edging in that direction) and add exposure to the application of specific adult forms of punishment to children, like placing inmates into solitary spaces for long periods.

In a new report Human Rights Watch states that: “Every year, the state of Florida arbitrarily and unfairly prosecutes hundreds of children as adults.”

The practice of solitary confinement has been prevalent in adult and juvenile detention facilities. For adults — the population on which, for ethical reasons, research is conducted — it is known to cause severe mental trauma; and for young people with developing minds and bodies it’s reasonable to presume that results would only be worse, says Maria McFarland, Deputy US Program Director for HRW.

“Solitary exacerbates underlying mental illness and with kids can have a deeper effect on mental health and physical health. It’s not surprising that kids would attempt suicide in solitary,” said McFarland.

Conditions in the now-closed Columbia Training School, a juvenile detention center in Mississippi — as described by the US Department of Justicein a 2003 letter titled “CRIPA Investigation of Oakley and Columbia Training Schools in Raymond and Columbia, Mississippi” — show why: “Girls in the SIU (Special Intervention Unit) at Columbia are punished for acting out or being suicidal by being placed in a cell called the ‘dark room,’ … a locked, windowless isolation cell with lighting controlled by staff… The room is stripped of everything but a drain in the floor which serves as a toilet. Most girls are stripped naked when placed [there]. According to Columbia staff, the reason girls must remove their clothing before being placed in the room is that there is metal grating on the ceiling and the cell door which could be used for hanging attempts by suicidal girls.”


Indeed, the Department of Justice has found that more than 60 percent of young people at juvenile facilities who committed suicide had a history of being held in isolation. Approximately half of suicide victims were on room confinement status at time of death.

So, it’s troubling then that isolation — an amplifier of mental anguish — is used to manage youths who have demonstrated they might be a danger to their own lives; and it’s comforting that efforts are underway to tackle the problem.

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For California resident Allen Feaster, change didn’t come soon enough. Flipping through a stack of worn photos of his son, Feaster said, “He was my best friend.” And holding up a photo of his son resting in a casket, Feaster added, “I dressed him. Blue was his favorite color, and blue was mine.” Ten years after his son’s death, Feaster still totes a tattered white binder full of newspaper clippings to work with him every day.

Allen Feaster is the father of Durrell Feaster, an inmate at the California Youth Authority’s Preston Youth Correctional Facility until January 19, 2004, when staffers found Durrell and his cellmate dead, hanging by their bed sheets, side-by-side.

Durrell was 18 years old. His cellmate, Deon Whitfield, was 17.

Prior to that, Durrell had often been placed in what Feaster calls “Lockup, 23 and 1” at his juvenile detention center. That’s slang for 23 hours of isolation and 1 hour of relative freedom, the practice in the prison system colloquially known as solitary confinement.


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The California Youth Authority (CYA) no longer exists — not under that name. It’s been rebranded and now operates under the title of California Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ).

The terms lockup and CYA were retired in California in 2005 when the whole department was restructured, shortly after Feaster’s and Whitfield’s deaths and after multiple reports of other misconduct within the CYA.

And today in California, you won’t find solitary confinement, or 23 and 1 lockup. That practice of locking up youths no longer exists in name or structure in California, according to the DJJ. Instead, it uses Behavior Treatment Units (BTUs), whereby youths are segregated for rehabilitation needs.

According to Chris Burke, the Public Affairs Specialist at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, you won’t find an instance of solitary confinement anywhere in the national juvenile system.

Solitary confinement is not a term we use,” Burke said. “We have a general term we use that’s called segregated housing, and that’s where we separate inmates from the general population for a variety of different reasons. Juveniles are not confined in our facilities.”

Joe Orlando, the information officer at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), calls the practice of solitary confinement a myth.

“Even those who have fewer privileges or may be causing trouble are never isolated,” Orlando wrote in an email to VICE News. “They regularly see counselors, teachers, staff, therapists throughout the day, and are never left alone or ‘confined.’”


And to some extent, Burke and Orlando are both right. The term solitary confinement, with its tainted connotation, is off-brand for an institution trying to gloss the image of juveniles in the prison system, and therefore, solitary confinement does not exist for youths.

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But if you look at the commonly accepted definition of solitary confinement as provided by the HRW — that’s physical or social isolation for 22–24 hours a day for one or more days — it not only exists, it’s a common practice on youths in many US detention centers, jails, and prisons.

Isolation tactics are employed daily to barricade youths who step out of line, need to cool down, need mental health monitoring, or are just awaiting adjudication or transfer.

The Semantics of Solitary

However, limited visibility into the prison system and a plenitude of terms applied to the isolation of youths, make it nearly impossible to gather precise data on how many youths are being kept in solitary in the US and under what conditions.

In slang, the act of isolating youths for extended periods of time is called lockup, 23 and 1, dark room. In official language, it’s isolation, seclusion, segregation, room confinement. In New York, the act of isolating youths is called punitive segregation. In Illinois, it’s labeled confinement. In California, it’s BTUs.

According to the OJJDP, “Isolation in a juvenile facility is often referred to as ‘room confinement,’ a term that includes time-out, quiet time, restriction, adjustment, conflict resolution, room lock, and off-program. Youth who are removed from the room in which they normally sleep are often held in seclusion, exclusion, separation, and special management.”


Regardless of the terminology, all these labels boil down to one thing: placing youths into solitary conditions for extended periods of time to manage them and reduce overcrowding.

The use of time-outs or temporary cool down periods — a practice generally condoned by critics of solitary — is the separation of a young person who poses an immediate threat to himself or others (usually for less than four hours). Once calm, if the youth is still kept isolated — and is kept isolated for 22 hours or more, then, as defined by HRW, he has been held in solitary confinement.

John Maki, the Executive Director of the John Howard Association — the only non-partisan prison watchdog in Illinois — says it’s a sordid game of semantics.

Maki elaborated, “You don’t call them inmates or prisoners; you call them youths. They’re not called prisons; they’re called centers. Solitary confinement is simply called confinement. There’re things called therapeutic restraints, which is holding a kid down — essentially, pinning him down. There are all kinds of ways that we misname things to cover up the real punitive practices we’re using on these kids, and it’s just dishonest on a certain level.” And he ventured, “On one level I think people who defend it would say it’s aspirational… We want to have a system where we don’t treat kids like this, so we shouldn’t call them prisons; we don’t want them to be prisons. The problem is they are prisons. There’s this conflict between what ought to be and what is, and if you don’t wrestle with that conflict, it’s very easy to assume that [prison is] something that it’s not.”


Bill Sessa, Public Information Officer at the CDCR, disagrees and asserts that it’s not a matter of semantics but of fact — and that solitary confinement is not in use.

“We never put a youth in isolation and we never move a youth strictly for punishment, which is what the term implies. We never ever have a youth in solitary confinement. What we have is a variety of interventions depending on the youth’s behavior,” he said.

In California, Sessa says state facilities have been entirely revamped: they now focus on rehabilitation, not punishment; overcrowding has dissolved — they’ve gone from having 15,000 youths held in 11 facilities to having 700 in three; juveniles are housed according to the treatment program they’re in, not as a disciplinary tool; there are support teams available to aid youth rehabilitation, especially available for youths removed to BTUs.

“Youths are never isolated. They may be remanded to their rooms in a housing unit, but they are never isolated,” Sessa said. “We are not just talking about semantics or a slightly different acronym. [Solitary confinement] simply does not exist…The term solitary confinement provokes a public image… Every part of our program and every part of our policy is the opposite of that. There’s nothing that even resembles solitary confinement in any of our programs. Solitary confinement is more of a political term than anything. The term is being used as a political tool to evoke images.”


However, a lawsuit in California paints a darker picture of juvenile detention facilities there: Contra Costa County is being sued for locking youths with disabilities in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, and stripping them of their right to an education.

The Push for Transparency

For Elizabeth Clarke, founder of the non-profit Juvenile Justice Initiative, which works to reform the juvenile justice system in Illinois, a bigger problem than labeling in the battle against the use of solitary confinement on youths is the lack of visibility into the practice.

“These are public facilities holding our children, and there’s very little transparency,” she said, explaining that the involved judges, legislators, and public defenders “rarely if ever go in them. [The facilities] are usually located in removed areas. Visitation is usually pretty limited. These are very hidden places that do not receive a good deal of scrutiny, so it’s very difficult to talk about what’s going on in them accurately.”

A data collection service launched in 1995, Performance-based Standards (PbS) for Youth Correction and Detention Facilities, has helped build more accurate statistics on juvenile facilities. But the program is not used nationwide and is only active at juvenile detention facilities, meaning that data about youths in adult jails or prisons are not included.

In Illinois, the American Civil Liberties Union has teamed with the state juvenile justice department, in an effort to improve visibility and consequently conditions for youths in juvenile detention centers, including barring the use of solitary confinement as discipline.


In New York City, council member Daniel Dromm is working on legislation that would mandate more transparency from the city’s Department of Corrections about its use of solitary confinement.

Calling the practice “deplorable,” Dromm began trying to dismantle punitive segregation — for children and adults — after a friend of his, in jail for drug-usage crimes, received 150 days of punitive segregation at Rikers Island, a New York City jail infamous for its extensive use of punitive segregation as punishment.

Dromm is now organizing a group of New York City council members to visit Rikers Island to see the conditions for themselves.

Says Dromm, “It’s degrading to us as Americans. Solitary confinement, punitive segregation is a form of torture.”

Nonetheless, the US still remains one of only three countries, along with South Sudan and Somalia, to have not ratified the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. The treaty prohibits the solitary confinement of juveniles.

It’s a bizarre stance given that officially the US doesn’t use solitary confinement on juveniles.

Photo by Flickr user CHeitz