Bringing Change: Juveniles and Solitary Confinement

2016 has so far proven to be an inspirational and encouraging year for those fighting to end the abhorrent practice of solitary confinement, particularly as it relates to juveniles and youthful offenders.  The year started off with a bang in January when the U.S. Department of Justice released its Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing.  One of the DOJ’s most pivotal recommendations was that the Federal Bureau of Prisons end the practice of placing juveniles in solitary confinement.  Simultaneously, the Washington Post published President Obama’s riveting, heart-felt op-ed, where he announced that he had adopted the Report’s recommendations to overhaul the use of solitary confinement in the federal prison system, including a complete ban of the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal system.

In the months that followed, other local and State legislative bodies adopted comprehensive reforms affecting the practice of placing children in solitary confinement.  On May 3, 2016, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to end the practice of solitary confinement at its three juvenile halls and 13 camps.  The county announced its plan to ban the use of solitary confinement except as a “temporary response to behavior that poses a serious and immediate risk of physical harm to any person.”  In those instances, the isolation is intended only to be for a brief “cooling off” period and should be done in consultation with a mental health professional.  LA County intends to implement these reforms in all its juvenile facilities by September 30, 2016.

A month later, on June 15, 2016, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety announced sweeping reforms to its use of solitary confinement on youthful offenders; releasing its plan to completely eradicate the practice of placing inmates under the age of 18 in solitary confinement by September 2016.  The Department of Public Safety also announced plans to introduce a new Youthful Offender Program, effective September 1, 2016.  Its mission is to identify the risks and needs of each youth and effectively address each area of need.  This multidisciplinary approach to treatment will include education, behavioral health treatment, life skills development and family/community reunification services aimed at assisting the youthful offender in making a positive adjustment to prison and a successful transition back to the community.

The public, our leaders and corrections officials are increasingly aware of the insidious and lasting effects prolonged isolation can have on the human mind; especially minds that are still growing and developing.  And when it comes to kids who have a history of trauma and abuse or have disabilities, the common risks associated with solitary confinement, such as self-harm, persistent mental health problems and even suicide, can be even greater.

For Juvenile Law Center, abolishing solitary confinement for juvenile offenders is central to its mission.  Through federal and state legislative advocacy, litigation and education, they have worked tirelessly to achieve their goal.  And on July 21, 2016, the JLC unveiled another weapon in their already formidable arsenal – art.  In collaboration with InLiquid and photographer Richard Ross, the Juvenile Law Center has sponsored Juvenile in Justice: End Solitary Confinement.  The multi-site exhibition features Ross’ hauntingly beautiful, thought provoking and utterly heartbreaking photographs of teenagers in solitary confinement.  The exhibition also features audio recordings of detained youth, and a replica of a solitary confinement cell. 

On July 21st, the Juvenile Law Center held an opening reception and panel discussion at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Parkway Central Library hosted by local journalist and radio host Solomon Jones, and featuring photographer Richard Ross, who highlighted the role of art in social change; Drexel psychology professor Dr. Naomi Goldstein, who underscored how solitary confinement harms child development; Juvenile Law Center Deputy Director and Chief Counsel Marsha Levick, who provided the legal landscape; and Urban Justice Center Advocate Johnny Perez, who talked about his advocacy work and his own experience in solitary confinement.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words; and it would not do to try and explain with mere words the raw emotion that Ross’ pictures evoke in the viewer.  Suffice to say, it is well worth a trip to Philadelphia to experience these provocative photographs for yourself.  The main exhibit at the Free Library of Philadelphia will run through September 4, 2016.  There will be additional, satellite installations on display around Philadelphia, including at Eastern State Penitentiary. 

We encourage the Together to End Solitary community to share this powerful event with friends and family, especially those in the Philadelphia area, in the hopes that we continue to inspire reformation in state juvenile justice systems throughout the country.  If you have any interest in bringing the exhibition to your hometown, or have suggestions of other galleries, schools or organizations that might be willing to host an installation of the exhibit, please reach out to Rachel Zimmerman with InLiquid at  Hopefully we can reach as many people as possible with these stirring photographs.  And through our collective advocacy and dedication we can make the latter half of 2016 be as transformative as the first half and maybe, just maybe, we could even see the total eradication of the use of solitary confinement for kids.

To submit an event report, please send a description and pictures or links to us at