Solitary Confinement & Harsh Conditions

Every day, children in the justice system face solitary confinement, strip searches, shackling, pepper spray, restraints, and physical and sexual abuse. Children may be locked in cells as small as seven-by-ten feet, 22 to 24 hours per day, with no personal belongings, no access to educational services, counseling or mental health treatment, no interaction with peers and with nothing more than a lightly padded concrete slab to sleep on. They may be pepper-sprayed for simple rule violations, strip-searched after family visits, or shackled when they leave their cells.

There is no evidence demonstrating that these practices reduce violence in youth facilities; in fact, research shows that they often make things worse. If parents treated their own kids this way, we would call it child abuse.

Harsh Conditions: Government-Sanctioned Child Abuse

Harsh conditions or practices in youth prisons interfere with normal child development, traumatize youth, exacerbate physical and emotional disabilities and cause serious life-long health problems. Solitary confinement can cause permanent psychological damage and may lead to self-harm, psychosis, and suicide — in adults as well youth. Strip searches likewise are traumatic, degrading, and humiliating. Children, especially those who have experienced sexual abuse, can be re-traumatized by strip searches and often feel violated or sexually abused by these searches. Although federal law prohibits sexual violence against incarcerated youth and adults, children still remain at risk of sexual assault in both juvenile and adult facilities.

Studies suggest that youth of colorLGBTQ youth, gender-non-conforming youth, and youth with disabilities are more likely to be placed in solitary confinement — which administrators sometimes justify as necessary “for their own protection,” or because the facility lacks appropriate services or accommodations.

The Movement To Keep Kids Safe

Juvenile Law Center is one of the leading advocates for the abolition of solitary confinement and other harmful conditions that youth face in the justice system. Juvenile Law Center's work focuses on: eliminating solitary confinement, strip searches, and the use of excessive force against kids; keeping kids safe from harm — whether from facility staff, other youth, or themselves; ensuring kids have developmentally appropriate care, treatment and programming; fair treatment, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, or disability status; and reducing the over-incarceration of youth and promoting alternatives to incarceration.

We use multiple strategies in our work, including federal and state legislative or executive branch advocacy, litigation, publication of resource materials or research, and professional training and public education. For example, in 2016, we filed a class action lawsuit with the ACLU of Wisconsin and Quarles & Brady, LLP challenging widespread use of solitary confinement, pepper spray and the practice of chaining youth to tables in two youth facilities, Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls. We are also proud to be part of a nationwide coalition to end solitary confinement for kids. 

Image credit: © Richard Ross,