Irish Penal Reform Trust

Juvenile Law Center Launch Report: Unlocking Youth Legal Strategies to End Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities

2nd August 2017

Solitary confinement is the involuntary restriction of a young person alone in a cell or room for any reason other than a temporary response when a young person’s behaviour presents an immediate risk of physical harm, according to the Unlocking Youth: Legal Strategies to End Solitary Confinement in Juvenile Facilities report.*

This report found that more than two-thirds of public defenders responding to the Attorney Survey on Solitary Confinement (2016) reported that they had clients who spent time in solitary confinement for periods ranging from just a few hours to seven months. It is stated that solitary confinement not only prohibits educational opportunity but also psychologically harms young people in the process. If solitary confinement must be used, the authors recommend, based on their research, that a maximum limit of three hours in confinement must not be exceeded. This, the authors state, is deemed as a ‘cooling off period.’ If longer periods are necessary, the authors recommend that, the person should be transferred to a more appropriate facility under the guidance of a mental health professional due to the risk of physical harm after the three-hour period.

Highlighted is that during the young adult years (to mid-20s) the brain undergoes a “second period of heightened malleability”, this (according to the report) means that the brain is responsive to environmental changes but also that during this period, experiences of adversity are more difficult from which to recover. Due to the negative effects of isolation, the report suggests that solitary confinement can be particularly problematic for children and young adults. The report discusses how this developmental period has an impact of the ability of children and young adults to make rational decisions which in turn can lead to increased use of behaviour that is considered challenging.

The report highlights that members of minority groups were more likely to be placed in solitary confinement for various reasons including the perceived threat of being the perpetrator (suggested racial bias due to higher numbers of African-American men and boys than Caucasian men and boys in solitary confinement for similar breaches of discipline) or victim of violence due to gender or sexuality (‘protection of harm’ despite the harms of solitary confinement). They also found that those with a disability were also represented in higher numbers in solitary confinement due either to the deprivation of their mental health needs or that there are no other cells to accommodate physically disabled people in a less restrictive environment. The research advocates for increased attention and resources to be placed into community partnerships, a strong juvenile defense, litigation coupled with educational strategies and policy reforms. These, the report suggests, are the mechanisms and tools that can impact change in the continued use of and acceptably of the use of solitary confinement.


Policy Reforms:

  • Ensure that policies prohibit, rather than alter or ameliorate, solitary confinement.

Litigation Strategies:

  • Argue for a child-specific constitutional standard, bring education claims in support of ending solitary confinement, challenge discriminatory policies and practices.

Strong Juvenile Defense:

  • Ensure post-disposition representation, ask targeted questions, visit local facilities, enlist the court, file licensing complaints and grievances, work with advocates engaged in system reform.

Community Partnerships:

  • Work with youth, parents, and other community advocates.

* Stop Solitary for Kids, Fact Sheet (2016)

See the following resources for further information:

Respect for rights in the penal system with prison as a last resort.



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