On March 28, the Arkansas House unanimously approved House Bill 1755. If passed, the bill would prohibit the use of solitary confinement as punishment in youth detention centers statewide.
HB 1755 would finally put an end to a cruel practice which has no place in the modern world. Solitary confinement places unbearable stress on the human mind, and in the case of youths with developing brains, it threatens to permanently and irreparable fracture their psyche.
The eighth Amendment to the Constitution famously prohibits the use of cruel and unusual punishments. Whether solitary confinement meets that standard far exceeds my knowledge on the subject, but it isn’t hard to interpret as a cruel act with major repercussions for the recipient.
The American Psychological Association has frequently argued against the use of solitary confinement, citing the damaging effects it has on victims’ mental health. A 2017 New York University study found that inmates held in solitary confinement reported a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms.
The inmates often reported insomnia, chronic lethargy and weight loss. While in solitary confinement, they showed higher rates of anxiety and depression, and unsurprisingly, they also exhibited increased rates of self harm and suicide attempts.
These negative effects often continued outside of solitary, as inmates often struggled to resocialize, and showed hostility toward correctional officers and other authority figures. Predictably, inmates often find themselves in trouble again and again in a perpetuating cycle.
Anecdotal accounts are even darker than the statistics suggest. Anthony Graves, an exonerated murder convict who spent 10 years in solitary confinement, said that inmates in solitary lost touch with reality within a few years. He described one specific inmate, who, when allowed in the yard, would lay down and decorate himself with his own waste. He also claimed that he hadn’t slept well in years and that he had persistent, disruptive mood swings.
The effects of confinement on children and teenagers are just as alarming. A 2012 report from the American Civil Liberties Union collected the experiences of minors kept in solitary confinement with harrowing results.
Multiple interviewees reported suicidal thoughts and self harm with the intention to escape their surroundings and force socialization. Other former inmates reported uncontrollable rage and violent urges, which hardly seems conducive to long-term rehabilitation. What could be traumatic to an adult is life-changing to a youth.
None of these findings are surprising, though. We tend to reflect the environment we are raised in. People usually become loose collections of the values, tastes and personalities we acquire from those around us. When someone is locked away in solitary confinement, though, they are deprived of this process. Ultimately, confinement depersonalizes and destroys them.
There are some obvious caveats. Some inmates’ behavior does pose a risk to others, and regardless of the detriment to their long-term health, they have to be isolated. Thankfully, HB 1755 makes that unfortunate but necessary concession. It also makes concessions for those who have committed sexual offenses or who are at risk of violence from others, inmates or otherwise.
HB 1755, if passed, would dramatically improve the quality of Arkansas’s correctional institutions. It would allow juvenile inmates to learn and grow naturally so that they might reenter the world and become productive members of society rather than being traumatized and thrown to the wolves.