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February 24, 2014

Should teen inmates ever be put in solitary confinement?


New York State has decided not to allow prisons to place teenage inmates in solitary confinement.

The new policy comes as a report published by New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene found teenage inmates held in isolation at Rikers Island prison, about 27 percent of teenagers on Rikers, were more likely to harm themselves than other inmates.

“Teenagers need to exercise. They just need to run around,” said Dr. Robert Cohen the former medical director at Rikers Island. “You can’t lock them up all day long and then expect them to behave like anything approaching a model citizen or to be repentant. It’s hard to imagine that response being facilitated and enhanced by being treated like a dog.”

Inmates in solitary are locked in six-foot-by-eight-foot cells for 23 hours a day. If an inmate wakes up at 6:00 a.m., he can sign up to exercise for an hour alone in this chain-link cage. Nationwide, more than half of all suicides among detained juveniles happen while they’re in isolation.

However, those who work in corrections say that solitary is an often necessary tool for controlling the inmates.

“Until you have 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,” said Norman Seabrook of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.

Sometimes, he said, the inmates, “are going at it. And they’re going and going and going and going like the Energizer Rabbit. They just don’t stop. And sometimes you have to use force. And when you use force, I instruct my officers, use whatever force is necessary to terminate that threat.”

Even though the study focused on Rikers Island, the ban on solitary for teens doesn’t extend to the jail because it is run by the New York City Department of Corrections, not the state.

Warm up questions
  1. What is solitary confinement?
  2. Why might a prison system use solitary confinement?
  3. What might be the psychological effects of solitary confinement?
Discussion questions
  1. What might be some reasons that a juvenile might be sent to solitary confinement?
  2. In your classroom, measure a six-foot-by-eight-foot space. Do you think you would be able to stay in this space for 23 hours by yourself? How might it affect you?
  3. Do you think putting teenagers in solitary confidently is:
    • Ethical
    • Necessary

    Explain your answer.

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