Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Children in Isolation

The Solitary Confinement of Youth

Children in Isolation

Birkhead, Tamar R. “Children in Isolation: The Solitary Confinement of Youth” (October 21, 2014). Wake Forest Law Review 50, no. 1 (Forthcoming, 2015). UNC Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2512867.


“Every day in prison settings around the world, young people are held in solitary confinement. They are alone for up to twenty-three hours a day in unfurnished cells. They do not see, have physical contact with, or speak to other people. The cells are small, often no larger than a horse’s stable, and are illuminated by artificial light. Food is passed through narrow openings in heavy metal doors. These adolescents are denied education, counseling, and other services that are necessary for their growth, rehabilitation and well-being. If a parent were to confine her child under similar conditions, it would be abuse; yet when the government does so, often for weeks and months without due process, it is condoned.

The paradox of solitary confinement is that it is not reserved only for the most culpable offenders. Juvenile and immigration detention centers as well as adult jails and prisons place adolescents in isolation to protect them—arguably—from each other or from adults; when they are perceived to be a threat; and to punish them for misconduct and rule-breaking. These rationales for the solitary confinement of youth fail to recognize, however, that prolonged isolation harms young people in ways that are often more profound than its impact on adults.

This Article is the first to provide a comprehensive comparative analysis of the solitary confinement of youth in the United States and across the globe. The Introduction describes a typical scenario under which an adolescent may be subjected to isolation and explores why the practice persists today despite widespread condemnation. Part I reviews the literature detailing the varieties of harm that young people suffer as a result of solitary confinement. Part II discusses the rationales that correctional facilities use to justify solitary confinement and the prevalence of the practice internationally. Part III analyzes the history of solitary confinement and the legal response within the U.S. and the international community. Part IV addresses strategies for reform, including legislation, federal regulations, and litigation; the adoption of best practice standards; and the role of the juvenile defender and other advocates for incarcerated youth. The Appendix presents the author’s original research documenting the current practices of the fifty-seven countries that legally condone or employ the solitary confinement of youth.”


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Keywords: juveniles, juvenile detention, juvenile justice, conditions of confinement, comparative law, international law, Eighth Amendment, 8th Amendment