Why Do We Lock Our Children Away in Solitary Confinement?


Law Professor Tamar Birckhead on the cruel punishment we inflict on our incarcerated youth.

“Being in isolation to me felt like I was on an island all alone[,] dying a slow death from the inside out.”

—Letter from Kyle B. (pseudonym), from California to Human Rights Watch, May 3, 2012

In small jail cells across the United States, children—some as young as thirteen—are locked up with minimal human contact for days, weeks and months at a time. Some cells have a window, letting in a bit of natural light. Occasionally they are able to yell out to other juveniles in nearby cells, and they may even be given a book or The Bible to read. This is their reality for 22 to 24 hours each day, an existence of almost complete physical and social isolation.

The American Civil Liberties Union released the video below titled “Hard to Watch, Impossible to Ignore,” and launched a petition with the goal of collecting 50,000 signatures that calls on U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to end the practice of holding juveniles in solitary confinement in federal prisons. A portion of the petition reads:

“Solitary can amount to torture, and the consequences can be devastating for children because they are still developing—that’s why we must stop this cruelty now.”

The group’s objective is to set a precedent for the states, where each year more than 90,000 youth are confined in prisons and jails, many of which keep their young inmates in solitary confinement.

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About Tamar R. Birckhead

Tamar Birckhead is an associate professor of law at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she teaches the Juvenile Justice Clinic, the criminal lawyering process, and juvenile courts and delinquency. Her research interests focus on issues related to juvenile justice policy and reform, criminal law and procedure, indigent criminal defense, and the criminalization of poverty. Follow Professor Birckhead on Twitter: @TamarBirckhead.


  1. Guy Smalley says:

    My view is it’s harder to get a license to drive than to have a child so in most cases you you have kids who are neglected abused wild so what chance do they have? Some of these kids would be victimized by adult prisoners or they would victimize younger ones there is no money to spent to clean up parents lack of responsiblity So this happens and when they get out it happens again. Until a plan is made I don’t see it changing for the better just different victims

  2. ‘Solitary confinement can amount to tourture’…as opposed to the straightforward torture children would experince if mingled with the adult prisoners.

  3. QuantumInc says:

    I see a question at the top of the page I see a question, but I don’t see any attempt to actually answer that question, even though the answer is probably actually really important!

    I know I’m being cynical but: Watch out for “Think of the Children!” that is the knee-jerk urge to protect “children” from anything that is antithetical to childhood. With 90,000 there must be a mixture of different crimes in the mix, but of course that just raises the question up top again.

    Cruelty in prisons is a serious issue, it is not a children’s issue. Viewing it through the lens of “Think of the Children!” is actually harming these kids in the long run. It distorts the whole issue in weird ways. We end up drawing lines between good prisoners and bad ones, a 18th birthday is a silly place to draw that line. Obviously these kids are there because they committed a very adult crime at some point, the sort of act you cannot imagine a 13 year old doing.

    A few of them are really innocent, a whole lot of them are in for things that probably don’t deserve such a sentence, however the same can be said for prisoners 18 or older. The United States of America is a country where lots of people go to prison, more so than any other country; and once they are there we usually don’t care what happens to them, well unless it comes into conflict with “Think about the Children!”

    The whole system is dysfunctional. Not just the legal system, but the beliefs of the people reading this right now. In the real world young people can commit serious crimes because in the real world everyone can commit a serious crime, not just “criminals,” not just the bad guys. It must be taken seriously, but requires a better, more thoughtful approach than just locking them up.

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