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.