Associated with psychotic breakdowns, hallucinations, suicidal tendencies and self mutilation, solitary confinement can permanently damage the brain of an adult human – which is why it’s considered cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
However, that hasn’t stopped juvenile detention centers in the state of Nebraska from using it on children – a practice the America Civil Liberties Union calls “counterproductive and inhumane” – and is the catalyst for an investigation into the state’s facilities.
The ACLU of Nebraska published a new report detailing a 2015 investigation into the way state juvenile detention centers treat solitary confinement; their work completed just weeks before President Obama banned the practice altogether in federal prisons.
What they found is that most juvenile detention centers in Nebraska are using the cruel and unusual punishment far more often, and “for longer periods” than facilities operated by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The policies of Nebraska state detention centers also differ vastly from those of neighboring states with regard to solitary confinement. Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota and Arkansas, for example, all limit the use of solitary confinement to a maximum of five days. However, even that amount of time can cause harm, according to the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative which recommends that solitary confinement should exceed no more than four hours.
But in Nebraska, all bets are off when it comes to solitary confinement. The ACLU’s report discovered that the punishment is sometimes used on teens for up to 90 days, and some of the facilities have “no policies governing solitary confinement or data to track usage” of the practice.
Not only does Nebraska overuse solitary confinement, but it also places more juveniles in detention, correction or residential facilities than most U.S. states. “In fact, Nebraska has the third highest per capita number of youth in juvenile facilities as ranked by the Annie E. Casey Kids Count Data Center.”
Placing teens in solitary confinement is highly controversial, as the impacts are believed to be intensified on developing minds.
“The overuse of solitary confinement for children is highly suspect from both a legal and policy perspective. Solitary confinement can cause extreme psychological, physical, and developmental harm,” reports the ACLU of Nebraska.
“For adults, the effects can be persistent mental health problems and even result in suicide. Children are more vulnerable as they are still developing physically and mentally-thus, the risks and impacts of solitary are magnified and more pronounced – particularly for kids with disabilities or kids with histories of trauma and abuse.”
More than 50 percent of all youths who committed suicide while in juvenile facilities were isolated in their rooms, according to research obtained by the Department of Justice, and more than 60 percent of them had histories of being held in solitary confinement.
Because children require exercise and mental stimulation to grow, solitary confinement may result in stunted development, affecting bones, muscles and organ function.
Obama’s decision to ban solitary confinement of juveniles in federal prison is based largely on the lasting health impacts it causes. “Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences,” he said.
“It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones.”
California announced a similar initiative last September when it agreed to move thousands of state prisoners out of solitary confinement, and back into the general population, some of whom have been had in isolation for more than three decades.
As far as Nebraska goes, the ACLU closes its report by calling on the state to reform its policies “to ensure that conditions in the juvenile justice system are effective and safe – and that they prioritize protection and rehabilitation.”