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Another Voice: N.Y. State must keep adolescents out of solitary confinement

By Vito Grasso

New York political leaders have said they were going to end solitary confinement for adolescents last June. Why can our state prison system still hold 16- and 17-year-olds in cells for 18 to 22 hours a day?

Research shows the long-term damaging impacts of isolation, especially on adolescents. The psychological effects of solitary confinement on teenagers is well-known. Since the frontal lobe is developing during the teenage years, forcing a child into solitary confinement inhibits this critical brain growth. And, because teenagers are still developing, they have less resilience to draw upon under these extreme conditions, and often experience a sense of hopelessness and vulnerability. 

Predictably, adolescents subject to isolation have thoughts of suicide and self-harm, hallucinations, heart palpitations, disorientation, anxiety and depression. This is incredibly harmful for children.

We remember the family of Ben Van Zandt, a 17-year-old with a serious mental health diagnosis who was sentenced to adult prison, and died by suicide while alone in solitary confinement. We thought this practice ended with New York’s Raise the Age law, which promised to reform our youth justice system. We were wrong.

In June, news reports revealed that another 17-year-old boy with mental illness had been held in solitary confinement for months at the Hudson Adolescent Offender Correctional Facility.  

The teenager, identified as “E.L.,” was held alone in an 8 1/2-foot-by-10-foot cell in an adolescent offender segregation unit. E.L. reportedly began to react to his extreme isolation with self-harming behavior, in an apparent cry for help. He wrote, “I need a doctor” and “Help me" on the walls of his cell.

Despite this, the State of New York published new rules in August that continue to permit teenagers to be locked in prison cells for 18 to 22 hours a day for months at a time. 

Health care providers with expertise in children’s health and development, like the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have rejected this kind of cruel treatment of children. The New York State Academy of Family Physicians agrees.

We call on the state to end this practice immediately, withdraw these rules, and require the state’s prison system to use rules created by New York’s Office of Children and Family Services, which do not permit the prolonged isolation of children or using cells for discipline. 

We use rules like these in juvenile facilities across the state. We know how to care for children in New York, and we should demand that the same protections apply to all kids no matter where they are being held. Let’s keep the promise of Raise the Age for all youth.

Vito Grasso is executive vice president of the New York State Academy of Family Physicians.

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