Quick Hit: The Horrors of Solitary Confinement

When I first saw this post on the ACLU’s blog about solitary confinement for juvenile girls in criminal detention, I was so horrified that I opened it in a tab and then couldn’t look at it again for several days. When I read through the entire post, I cried. I believe that when the United States takes control of a person, whether in criminal or immigration detention, they take on an obligation to care for that person, or at least not put them in mortal danger. And that is simply not happening. On the contrary, the solitary confinement policies seem to target girls with existing trauma and/or mental health histories for further isolation and victimization.

[Trigger warnings for sexual assault and abuse based on disability.]

In June 2008, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit challenging inhumane practices at the Brownwood State School, a youth prison in central Texas. Girls at Brownwood are regularly placed in punitive solitary confinement in oppressively cold, concrete cells, that are empty except for a metal slab intended to be used as a bed. Solitary confinement is imposed for minor misbehavior, for self-harm or for expressing a desire to commit self-harm, and can be brief or can last for days, weeks and even months. It’s hard to imagine a more destructive reaction to a child in crisis, but it’s the norm. Unfortunately, these practices are not limited to Brownwood, or Texas, for that matter.

There are currently more than 14,000 girls incarcerated in the United States, a number that has been rapidly increasing in recent decades. Most of these girls are arrested for minor, nonviolent offenses and probation violations. Locked up under the guise of rehabilitation, girls nationwide — the vast majority of whom have been sexually/physically abused — are subjected to punitive solitary confinement, routine strip searches, and other forms of abuse. Meanwhile, they are denied the essential mental health care, education, and social services they need. Far from helping girls cope with the trauma they have suffered, youth prisons’ use of solitary confinement only retraumatizes them and further impedes their rehabilitation.

This is abundantly clear in a recent collection of testimonies from girls imprisoned in Texas juvenile institutions printed by Harper’s magazine this week. On newsstands today, the May 2010 issue features excerpts from ACLU interviews with incarcerated teenage girls. A few noteworthy excerpts include a girl who states that her crying is treated as “problem behavior,” another who was locked in a solitary confinement cell surrounded by her own vomit for over 24 hours, and perhaps even more disturbing, the following testimony from a girl in solitary confinement:

“A staff [member] gave me a pill, and he told me he was going to take me to get my meds. We ended up in this dirty room. It had pipes, buckets—it was dusty, it was nasty. I was like, I want to go to sleep, and he was like, You’re not leaving until we have sex. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know to scream, I didn’t know to do none of that stuff. I told him I wasn’t going to lie on that dirty floor, and he was like, Well, just bend over, and so—I didn’t know what he was going to do to me. I don’t know if he could’ve killed me and it would’ve been on the news: We just found a dead teenager at TYC and nobody knows what happened.

— 17-year-old, Marlin Orientation and Assessment Unit

One response to “Quick Hit: The Horrors of Solitary Confinement”

  1. Laughingrat

    This reminds me of the post here about students with disabilities being likely to be suspended or otherwise disciplined for “bad” behavior that is caused by their disability. It seems like what’s being punished by authority figures is not badness, but difference; they’re singling out and crushing anything that isn’t like them, that doesn’t reflect their experiences. How can anyone who doesn’t fit within the narrow definition of “normal” win in a situation like that?

    It also reminds me of how there’s all kinds of laws on the books–anti-discrimination laws, child protection laws, laws against domestic violence, etc.–designed specifically to protect marginalized people from further discrimination or exploitation, but those laws don’t mean anything if people in authority refuse to enforce them. It’s all so frustrating.

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