This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.
JONATHAN MCCLARD, 16, “LEANED FORWARD” toward an officer. A 17-year-old in California “made a smart remark.” Kalief Browder, 16, told another inmate to stop throwing shoes at people. Albert Woodfox, who was in solitary confinement longer than any other American, was too political for guard administrators’ tastes. Barbra Perez, a trans woman, was placed in solitary “for her own protection.” Many are accused of having gang affiliations by inmates being questioned under duress. Some are just on a prison guard’s bad side.
In other words, prison guards and administrators often throw individuals in solitary for minor, arbitrary reasons. Zoom out: Overcrowded prisons and inadequate staffing mean that inmates are placed in solitary when there is no physical room in general holding, or no staff to attend to them. Zoom out one more time: The system of mass incarceration and the sheer number of people being sent to jail and kept waiting for trials produce chaotic backlogs, and prisoners’ voices get lost.
But inmates also land in solitary for their “protection,” perhaps because of their size, or age, or sexuality. “There’s a whole range of reasons that kids can end up in solitary that have nothing to do with their behavior,” says Marc Schindler, the executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, one of the leading organizations in the Stop Solitary for Kids coalition.
Data that measures the movement of inmates through our criminal justice system is spotty at best, and even less comprehensive when it comes to juvenile inmates. In 2013, the Annie E. Casey Foundation estimated that roughly 70,000 inmates 21 or younger were imprisoned in the United States, while a 2010 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that some 35 percent of surveyed juvenile inmates had been isolated during their sentence. Solitary confinement is considered a form of torture by more than one human rights organization, and it falls disproportionately, like the prison system as a whole, on black and brown prisoners. It also has not been shown to reduce violence in prisons or to improve inmate behavior. “If you talk to people in solitary confinement, very few of them are out of control,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who has studied the effects of solitary confinement for decades. “Most of them are quiet and thoughtful."
“They don’t know why they have to spend so much time in solitary.”