Sight and Sound Separation: PREA Compliance Harms Juveniles in Adult Facilities

Solitary confinement, or the practice of isolating incarcerated people in a cell for up to 23 hours a day, is a controversial practice often reserved for punishing the bad behavior of adult inmates. Both psychologically and emotionally damaging, the research on solitary confinement as an effective disciplinary measure is limited. Its usage is especially dangerous for juveniles and has been prohibited in many states. So why does this practice persist despite the risk of permanent damage to the developing adolescent brain?

The answer is complicated. In states lacking policies that prevent minors from being sentenced to adult facilities, juveniles can be housed with adult inmates and are often immediately victimized upon entry. Youth incarcerated under these conditions are more likely than any other subset of the American prison population to suffer sexual violence. Incarcerated youth are also 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youth housed separately from adult populations.

Considering these statistics, in 2003, Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act that aimed to curb instances of sexual assault in all correctional facilities. It took the Department of Justice nine years to approve and begin implementing the standards established by the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. The PREA contains a provision requiring “sight and sound separation,” or mandatory segregation of inmates under the age of 18 from older prisoners. While this provision can be satisfied by measures such as constant supervision or preventing minors from sharing cells with adults, it sometimes manifests in isolation as a penalty for minors, which is not wholly prohibited.

The Justice for All Reauthorization Act of 2016 imposed a six-year deadline on states to fully comply with PREA standards. Faced with the option of either losing federal grant funding or exhausting the designated prison funding they receive from the Department of Justice for alternative-compliance efforts, some facilities subject youth to solitary confinement instead. The majority of the youth detainees, already deprived of the beneficial rehabilitative programming they likely would receive at a youth facility, are non-violent offenders.

Amid the debate over the constitutionality of solitary confinement, then-President Barack Obama announced a ban on the practice for juveniles in the federal prison system in 2016. As of January 2020, seventeen states as well as the District of Columbia limit or prohibit solitary confinement for minors. Other states would do well to follow suit. Not only is solitary a poor solution, but it makes incarcerated minors more likely to experience depression and anxiety, especially among those already suffering from trauma or mental illness at the time of conviction. Exacerbating the conditions that contribute to youth incarceration rates will worsen rates of recidivism.

This reality is particularly troubling for minors forced into solitary confinement for safety reasons rather than as a disciplinary measure. Solitary is categorized in two ways: disciplinary or administrative segregation. Administrative segregation is the inverse of what youths face; it is intended to isolate an inmate who is deemed to pose a threat to the rest of the population. Instead of using this safety measure to isolate predators, the potential victims are isolated instead. The effects of prolonged isolation pose physiological threats to juvenile development. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain primarily responsible for impulse control and decision-making, is still developing while these minors are in isolated lock-up. The cognitive disturbances, psychosis, and sleep deprivation (which can all accompany solitary confinement) may permanently inhibit these brain functions in incarcerated youth. When the mental health needs of minors are not being met in adult facilities, hope for rehabilitation is significantly reduced.

Sexual violence against minors in adult facilities must be addressed through comprehensive reform and preventative measures. However, isolating juveniles in solitary confinement is not an acceptable way to achieve PREA compliance. In fact, due to the health risks associated with this practice, it may be just as dangerous as housing minors and adults together. One productive solution to this problem would be taking precautions around adolescent brain malleability, such as assessing evidence which supports the benefits of raising the age of criminal responsibility. 

If we operate a separate legal system for minors in this country, why are we undermining it by allowing them to end up in the same place as adult offenders?