How Solitary Confinement Hurts the Teenage Brain

Teens isolated in prison can suffer from mental health consequences for years.
Inmate housing on Riker's Island (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

Lately, Josh has been having delirious dreams, often waking in cold sweats, panicked and disoriented. “I started to feel like I was going crazy,” he said. The episodes are unpleasant, but they’re not unfamiliar; they’re reminiscent of the time he spent in solitary confinement as a teenager 16 years ago.

Josh’s story is a glimpse into a troubling practice that is sometimes considered too cruel for adults, and even more so when used on minors. The effects are damaging and lasting, and ultimately, they’re not just a problem for the child, but for society as a whole. 

Solitary confinement involves isolating inmates in cells that are barely larger than a king-sized bed for 22 to 24 hours per day. It wreaks profound neurological and psychological damage, causing depression, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, anxiety, and anger. Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian wrote that “even a few days of solitary confinement will predictably shift the EEG pattern towards an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium.”

If solitary confinement is enough to fracture a grown man, though, it can shatter a juvenile.

One of the reasons that solitary is particularly harmful to youth is that during adolescence, the brain undergoes major structural growth. Particularly important is the still-developing frontal lobe, the region of the brain responsible for cognitive processing such as planning, strategizing, and organizing thoughts or actions. One section of the frontal lobe, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, continues to develop into a person’s mid-20s. It is linked to the inhibition of impulses and the consideration of consequences.

Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz, has been studying the psychological effects of solitary confinement for about 30 years. He explained that juveniles are vulnerable because they are still in crucial stages of development—socially, psychologically, and neurologically.

“The experience of isolation is especially frightening, traumatizing, and stressful for juveniles,” he said. “These traumatic experiences can interfere with and damage these essential developmental processes, and the damage may be irreparable.”

Juveniles can be placed in solitary for disciplinary, protective, administrative, or medical purposes. For Josh, now 33, it was his “smart mouth,” he said, that landed him there. He spent time in isolation in five different Oregon juvenile detention facilities before he turned 18. Once, the isolation lasted for two weeks in a cell in the basement of Newport jail, he said.

Josh, who was detained for burglary, described solitary as a “dark, dark place” and a “profoundly lonely experience.” If juveniles endure it for too long, he said, “You rob them of their spirit. You may as well kill [them].”

The ACLU said that just hours of isolation “can be extremely damaging to young people.” In December 2012, the Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence issued a report that read, “Nowhere is the damaging impact of incarceration on vulnerable children more obvious than when it involves solitary confinement.”

They noted that among suicides in juvenile facilities, half of the victims were in isolation at the time they took their own lives, and 62 percent had a history of solitary confinement.

The task force requested that the practice be used only as a last resort and only on youths who pose a serious safety threat. The UN expert on torture went further and called for an “absolute prohibition [of solitary confinement] in the case of juveniles,” arguing that it qualified as “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”

In April 2012, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a statement saying they concurred with the UN position. “In addition, any youth that is confined for more than 24 hours must be evaluated by a mental health professional, such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist when one is available,” they wrote.

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Laura Dimon is a writer based in New York.

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