Solitary confinement: devastating for adults, worse for children

For years, Anthony Gay resorted to self-mutilation just to experience short spurts of caring human interaction. His tragic story, chronicled this month in the Chicago Tribune, of spending 22 years in solitary confinement is a clear warning to us all of its insanity-inducing effects. Solitary confinement is linked to the formation and aggravation of serious mental illness, and it acts as a catalyst for the development of new forms of psychiatric disorders.

The question legislators in Annapolis must consider is this: If we understand the mental health implications of solitary confinement on adults, why would we subject the developing minds of Maryland's children to this potentially irreparable torture?


In Maryland, the practice of solitary confinement is known as “restrictive housing.” It involves locking individuals in a cell, colloquially referred to as “the hole,” without meaningful human contact for upward of 22 hours a day. Shamefully, this practice continues in our state, despite perennial efforts to curb it, for both adults and children.

Research from the American Psychological Association shows that the brain continues to develop in neurological, cognitive and emotional domains late into adolescence. Placing a child in solitary can increase the risk of self-mutilation, suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, paranoia and aggression.


Without a doubt, if a parent subjected a child to this treatment, the child would be removed from the home and the parent would be charged with child abuse. Why then would this abusive practice remain sanctioned in our corrections facilities?

In 2015, President Barack Obama ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to review the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. The subsequent report was definitive: “juveniles should not be placed in restrictive housing.” The report acknowledged that in very rare situations, “a juvenile may be separated from others as a temporary response to behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to any person.” But the report made clear that even in such cases, “the placement should be brief, designed as a ‘cool down’ period, and done only in consultation with a mental health professional.”

The report prompted President Obama to pen an op-ed and authorize a series of executive orders addressing the practice, including a prohibition on placing children who are incarcerated into solitary confinement. In the op-ed, President Obama wrote, “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? ... It is an affront to our common humanity.”

The U.S. policy under President Obama followed a report issued by the United Nations in 2011 that called for the abolishment of solitary confinement for juveniles because it “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child has stated that juvenile solitary confinement should be considered cruel and unusual treatment.

Corrections experts agree. The American Correctional Association sets national benchmark standards for the effective operation of correctional systems throughout the United States. Their recently released 5th edition of performance-based standards prohibits placing children in extended restrictive housing.

As the evidence continues to grow that solitary should end for children, the courts are starting to move in that direction, too. In Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life without parole for a youthful offender violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The court’s rationale emphasized scientific research on the mental faculties of a child’s developing mind and the child’s ability to rehabilitate. Solitary confinement is clearly counterproductive because it traumatizes a child’s mind and hinders their ability to rehabilitate.

Placing children in solitary confinement does not make us safer. It serves no penological or rehabilitative purpose. It flies in the face of the purpose of Maryland’s juvenile justice system, as stated in law, which includes mandates “to assist children in becoming responsible and productive members of society; to provide for the care, protection, and wholesome mental and physical development” of children found delinquent by the court; and “to provide for a program of treatment, training, and rehabilitation consistent with the child’s best interests and the protection of the public interest.”

Legislators must take this charge seriously. Stop putting children in solitary confinement.


Caylin Young is public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maryland; his email is