Academic journal article South Dakota Law Review

The Movement to Stop Youth Solitary Confinement: Drivers of Success & Remaining Challenges

Academic journal article South Dakota Law Review

The Movement to Stop Youth Solitary Confinement: Drivers of Success & Remaining Challenges

Article excerpt


The life and death of Kalief Browder captured the tragic injustice of solitary confinement--especially as inflicted on youth--for the nation and our leaders. Kalief was just 16 years old when he was accused of stealing a backpack. (1) He spent the next three years awaiting trial in Rikers Island prison. (2) During that time, officials put Kalief in solitary confinement for two years, where he endured abuse by officers and other prisoners, multiple suicide attempts, and the deprivation of food. (3) After the charges were finally dropped against him, Kalief returned home at the age of 20, but was never quite the same. (4)

Six months after he left Rikers, Kalief tried to hang himself at home and was taken to a psychiatric hospital. (5) After that incident, his mental health appeared to improve; he enrolled in college and seemed to thrive. (6) He also began speaking out publicly about his experience as a teen at Rikers and in solitary, catching the attention of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, and celebrities like Jay Z and Rosie O'Donnell. (7) In the end, however, the trauma of his experience was too much, and the lasting scars too great. On June 6, 2015, Kalief took his own life in his family home. (8) He was only 22. (9)

Kalief Browder's tragic death brought almost immediate attention to the brutal treatment that catalyzed it, and the practice of solitary confinement in particular. Just a few weeks after Kalief's death, on June 18, 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited Kalief's story in a concurring opinion written to address the practice of solitary confinement, noting "[t]he human toll wrought" by the practice, how solitary "exact[s] a terrible price" on all people, and how solitary can bring all people "to the edge of madness, perhaps to madness itself." (10) A few months later in an historic op-ed in the Washington Post, President Barack Obama also referenced Kalief's case, denounced the practice of solitary confinement in the United States as "an affront to our common humanity," and announced a federal ban on the use of solitary confinement on youth held in federal prisons. (11)

The attention of both the President of the United States and a Justice of the Supreme Court--on of the nation's most influential jurists--to an issue like solitary confinement is both striking and highly unusual. (12) However, it is not the product of chance or a one-off citation. Over the past six years, momentum for reform of the practice of solitary confinement and creation of alternatives in our prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers has gained substantial ground, ascending in popular and political dialogue.

The reform movement's success at capturing the attention of the media, the public, and state and national leaders is unprecedented for any recent modern campaign seeking to end inhumane conditions of confinement. This sudden success is no accident. It is the product of long-term investment by a number of groups, savvy organizing, multi-pronged strategies, innovative corrections and juvenile justice management, and intensive and simultaneous engagement with state, national, and international leaders. Campaigns to end the practice for youth in particular have been bolstered by efforts to reform the practice for adults, but the youth movement also has a life of its own. This is especially true in relation to the greater scientific understanding of brain development and a cultural shift in our perception and treatment of youth who come into conflict with the law.

The result is that public, corrections, and juvenile justice officials in state after state and the federal system are embracing more humane and effective alternatives to isolation for youth. Some reforms have been halting and piecemeal, others more thoroughgoing. Some are driven by legislation or litigation, others by policy or budget. To understand the current possibilities and obstacles for reform or abolition of the practice of solitary confinement of youth, it is necessary to understand the unique dimensions of the juvenile movement and the different drivers accelerating reform, and to seek to identify areas where challenges and opportunities either support or detract from the ability to create sustainable and meaningful change. …

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