The United States is the only national in the world that doles out life sentences for crimes committed while the offender was below the age of 18. According to a report released yesterday by Human Rights Watch, “approximately 2,570 youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in adult US prisons,” and as inmates they “experience conditions that violate fundamental human rights.”
The report “draws on six years of research, and interviews and correspondence with correctional officials and hundreds of youth offenders serving life without parole,” and presages the Supreme Court’s upcoming review of juvenile LWOP. “Youth offenders are serving life without parole sentences in 38 states and in federal prisons,” HRW reports. “Prison policies that channel resources to inmates who are expected to be released often result in denying youth serving life without parole opportunities for education, development, and rehabilitation.”
Among the report’s shocking findings is the fact that “nearly every youth offender serving life without parole reported physical violence or sexual abuse by other inmates or corrections officers.” Unsurprisingly, “Youth offenders commonly reported having thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness, or depression. Isolation was frequently compounded by solitary confinement. In the past five years, at least three youth offenders serving life without parole sentences in the United States have committed suicide.”
In its section on “Protective and Punitive Isolation,” the report finds that “Youth offenders often spend significant amounts of their time in US prisons isolated from the general prison population. Such segregation can be an attempt to protect vulnerable youth offenders from the general population, to punish infractions of prison rules, or to manage particular categories of inmates, such as alleged gang members. Youth offenders frequently described their experience in segregation as a profoundly difficult ordeal.”
It continues: “Life in long-term isolation usually involves segregating inmates for 23 or more hours a day in their cells. Offenders contacted by Human Rights Watch described the devastating loneliness of spending their days alone, without any human contact, except for when a guard passes them a food tray through a slot in the door, or when guards touch their wrists when handcuffing them through the same slot before taking them to the exercise room or for a shower once a week. Youth had the same experience and feelings whether they had been isolated to protect or to punish them.”
The report’s findings on the use of solitary confinement on juvenile lifers (with corresponding footnotes) appears below. You can also read the full report–which includes a series of recommendations to the president, Congress, corrections officials, and judges–online or as a PDF.
Protection that Harms
A growing consensus views protective isolation as acceptable only as a last resort and interim measure. Yet isolation is commonly used by prison officials as a quick solution to protection challenges—including the challenge of keeping a young person safe in a prison full of adults.
Youth offenders reported to Human Rights Watch that they sometimes sought out protective custody to avoid harm. Occasionally, prison authorities recognize the problems a youth offender is having and take corrective measures. Jeffrey W., who entered prison at age 17, wrote:
At the beginning, the focus was on surviving…. Naturally, I was the target of sexual predators and had to fight off a couple rape attempts…. These were hardened, streetwise convicts who had been in prison 10, 15, 20, 30 years and I was a naïve 18-year-old who knew nothing about prison life…. Because of the rape attempts on me … state prison officials [said] I should have been classified as needing protection. I was soon sent to the state’s protection unit…. I stayed there for seven years until I was returned to the general population—older, wiser, and capable of surviving general population.Unfortunately, segregation can exacerbate the lack of opportunities for programs described in more detail later in this report:
Right now I’m not receiving no schooling or counseling due to being in ASU Administrative Segretion Unit. They have no schooling for me or etc. They are way out of conduct here. I been asking to receive some GED work but I haven’t receive no responce. I wish to recieve schooling. I learn how to read and write in prison and I want to be successful. I might get out one day.Prolonged periods of isolation can be devastating for anyone, but are especially devastating for young offenders.
Punishment with a Permanent Impact
Youth offenders are often placed in long-term isolation or super-maximum security confinement as a disciplinary sanction. Dennis Burbank, an administrative officer at Colorado State Penitentiary, offered an explanation for why youth offenders serving life without parole often end up confined in long-term isolation:
One [factor] is age—when you come in at a young age with life without, there’s not a whole lot of light at the end of the tunnel. Also, it’s kind of a guy thing: the young ones come in with a lot of fear, anxiety, paranoia, and they want to make a name for themselves—so they have a tendency to act out…. They say [to themselves] ‘I’ve got to impress everyone with what a bad-ass I am.’Long-term isolation can have lasting negative effects on inmates. Troy L. came to prison at age 16 after committing first degree murder at the age of 15. He spent “something like 300 days in an isolation cell” when he was awaiting trial and had been transferred to isolation several times since for “different reasons.” Troy said he had spent so much time in isolation that he was unable to feel comfortable relating to and living around other people, especially now that he was housed in the general population barracks:
If you just see what these barracks are like, they got us piled in there like some cockroaches. And I’ve spent so much time over the years … in just cells and lockdown for different reasons. And it’s hard for me to deal with just having so many people around. So much—I can’t think—you know what I mean?Human Rights Watch has systematically documented and advocated against the human rights violations inherent in the incarceration of individuals in super-maximum security prisons throughout the United States. Segregated living also has long-term psychological implications.