A new report produced by researchers at the University of Texas’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs describes conditions faced by children who are “certified” for transfer to adult criminal justice system. Many of these juveniles are housed in adult jails in Texas while they await trial. The report finds that the majority of youth placed in adult jails are housed in solitary confinement, most with just one hour of out-of-cell time per day. While they are placed in isolation for their own protection, they live in conditions that mirror punitive segregation, and often remain there for months or even years.
“When making housing decisions,” the report states, ”jails are forced to choose between protecting the mental health or physical safety of a juvenile.” If they are placed among adult prisoners, they are at high risk of physical and sexual assault. If they are instead placed in solitary, it is their mental health that’s most at risk–and the damage may be permanent.
The report, titled Conditions for Certified Juveniles in Texas County Jails, surveyed 41 jails, which in the course of 2010 housed well over a hundred juveniles who had been accused of a crime, but not yet convicted. ”Given the broad range of physical risks to youth who are commingled with adult offenders,” the report found, ”the majority of jails surveyed chose to house juveniles in isolation cells. Although these jails are making efforts to protect the physical safety of the juveniles in their custody, this isolation has its own risks.”
It can have a detrimental impact on the juvenile’s mental health, aggravating existing mental illness and augmenting suicidal ideation. Segregation may hurt adolescents’ chance for proper socialization and damage their ability to develop a healthy adult identity. This reduction in socialization and impairment to identity formation may limit the possibility for future mental health recovery.
Even short periods of isolation can produce symptoms of paranoia, anxiety, and depression. In fact, “even a few days of solitary confinement will predictably shift the electroencephalogram (EEG) pattern toward an abnormal pattern characteristic of stupor and delirium.” The harm caused by isolation does not end at release; prolonged or permanent psychiatric disability may occur, including impairments that seriously reduce the inmate’s capacity to reintegrate into the broader community upon release from detention. Amnesty International has condemned the practice of placing youths in isolation, finding that it both violates international law and is particularly damaging to “children and adolescents, who are not yet fully developed physically and emotionally and are less equipped to tolerate the effects of isolation.”
It is worth noting that certified youth in county jails have not been convicted of any crime, and are merely awaiting hearings or trials on their charges. They must be presumed innocent. Some of these youth will have their cases dismissed; some will be given probation; and others will be given time-served or short sentences. Despite the speed with which these youth may re-enter the community, the effects of detention may be severe. For example, the impact of prolonged isolation may have mental health consequences that will make it difficult for these youth to reintegrate, and may increase the likelihood that they will recidivate…
National research indicates that juveniles held in adult jails have by far the highest suicide rate of any age group in adult jails. Additionally, national data shows that juveniles in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their counterparts in a juvenile detention facility. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that for every suicide committed by young adults (not specifically incarcerated youths) between the ages of 15 and 24, there were between 100- 200 attempts. This is significant, as the likelihood a youth will harm himself or herself in adult jail is exponentially increased from the already heightened suicide rates for juveniles in adult facilities. Given the significantly increased risk of suicide, self-harm, and aggravation of mental health issues, the choice to separate juveniles from adults only trades physical safety for mental health risks…
There is no good option for the jail administrators who are confronting this challenge. In contrast, juvenile detention centers do not have to make this choice between a youth’s physical safety and mental health, because they have the capacity to house youth with other youth.
For personal stories of children in solitary in adult jails in Texas, see the award winning article “For Their Own Good,” which appeared in the Houston Press in 2010.