Every day in the U.S., about 80,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement.
PBS FRONTLINE’s latest documentary, "Solitary Nation," which aired this week, sheds light on the extreme conditions adults go through when they are held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in a cell that’s barely bigger than a porta-potty.
Watch the entire Frontline film here.
FRONTLINE’s documentary exposes the severe mental and physical challenges faced by adult inmates in solitary. From self-mutilation to flooding their cells to throwing feces, grown adults find themselves pushed to the brink when they spend the majority of their time alone in a small cell.
Now, imagine that these challenges were being faced by juveniles – for weeks or months at a time, sometimes without even being convicted of a crime. That’s what we found in our recent investigation into the use of solitary confinement for juveniles at Rikers Island jail in New York.
Solitary confinement, which began as an experiment in the late 1800s to reform inmate behavior, is now used as a regular tactic to control some of America’s most dangerous and violent inmates. For Rodney Bouffard, the warden of the maximum-security Maine State Prison who was featured in the FRONTLINE film, solitary confinement is about finding an alternative. "For the normal person who doesn’t work in a facility like this, they’re thinking if you punish them, you’ll make them better," Bouffard says. "The reality is the exact opposite happens.”
CIR’s Trey Bundy and Daffodil Altan spent months investigating conditions inside juvenile isolation facilities, particularly Rikers Island and Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall in California. And while FRONTLINE was able to get full access to the isolation unit in Maine, no media have ever been allowed into Rikers Island’s juvenile isolation wards. So CIR created this animation based on the experience of one teenager who was held there.
Norman Seabrook, the president of New York City’s correction officers union, told CIR that at Rikers, the use of isolation comes down to safety.
“We have had inmates bite off the fingers of correction officers so that they now have eight-and-a-half and nine fingers as opposed to 10,” he says. “Until you've walked in the shoes of a correction officer inside the city's jail system, please don't pass judgment on us, because you know what? It's a tough job.”
As national discourse around adult solitary confinement heats up, there hasn’t been much proposed legislation around juvenile isolation. Currently, there is no federal law that prohibits solitary confinement for youth. There also are no federal laws that restrict the duration that young people can be locked in their cell for 23 hours a day. (Earlier this year, California state Sen. Leland Yee proposed a bill to ban isolation as punishment for juveniles, but he’s since been indicted on several counts of corruption.)
To give some context about what juveniles face in solitary confinement, consider the following numbers about Rikers Island:
- 23: The number of hours a day teenagers are placed in solitary confinement.
- 1: The number of hours a day teenagers can by law go outside.
- 16, 17: Ages that a teen can be placed in solitary confinement as punishment, which can be anything from horseplay and “noisy behavior,” “annoying” staff members and having “unauthorized amounts” of clothing or art supplies.
- 100: The estimated number of juveniles who are housed in solitary confinement at Rikers Island at any given time, which is a higher rate than at most U.S. prisons, according to Solitary Watch.
- 75: The percentage of the youth population in solitary that has been diagnosed with a mental illness at Rikers, according to the Board of Correction.
- 1-to-5: On average, the ratio of guards to juvenile inmates at Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall.
- 1-to-50: Ratio of guards to juvenile inmates at Rikers Island.
- 0: The number of federal laws that prohibit solitary confinement for youth.
- 7: The number of states – Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Oklahoma and West Virginia – that have placed some prohibition on juvenile solitary confinement. In Maine, however, the ban is not explicit, and a loophole in Nevada allows isolation if “less-restrictive options have been exhausted.”
- 3: The number of countries that have declined to ratify the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits juvenile solitary confinement. Those countries are the U.S., Somalia and South Sudan.
You can explore the results of our reporting so far in a variety of ways. Read our collection of solitary confinement stories on Medium. Listen to the radio segment on “Reveal,” CIR’s new investigative radio show with PRX. Watch how solitary confinement pushes mental limits for teens at Rikers Island. And see what happened when inmates held in isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison in California were able to take and share photographs of themselves for the first time in years.