Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Juveniles incarcerated in adult prisons face a host of adverse health impacts. New research presented at the American Public Health Association conference shows they are also more than two times as likely to be placed in solitary confinement.

By Hyun Namkoong

North Carolina and New York are the only two states in the country that try 16- and17-year-olds as adults in their criminal justice systems.

Many people with mental health problems end up in solitary confinement in prison when their problems, left untreated, result in them acting out. Photo courtesy Rennett Stowe, flickr creative commons
Many people with mental health problems end up in solitary confinement in prison when their problems, left untreated, result in them acting out. Photo courtesy Rennett Stowe, flickr creative commons

The negative health impacts of adolescents incarcerated in adult prisons are well documented. Adolescents face significantly higher risks of sexual victimization, physical assault and recidivism when they are incarcerated with adults.

And new research from the New York City Department of Health’s Bureau of Correctional Health Services shows that adolescents are more than two times as likely as adults to be sent to solitary confinement. Staff from the department presented their research findings yesterday at the American Public Health Association Conference in New Orleans.

Findings from the study conducted on Rikers Island show that race also plays a role in who gets sent to the “hole,” a term commonly used by inmates to describe solitary confinement. The study shows black juveniles are most frequently sent to solitary confinement. Nearly 7 percent of black juveniles get placed in isolation compared to 4.8 and 1.8 percent of Hispanic and white adolescents, respectively.

The controversial use of solitary confinement in North Carolina has been questioned with the recent death of Michael Anthony Kerr.

Kerr was an inmate at Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, where he died of dehydration in an isolated cell on March 12. His death led to the firing of seven people, two resignations, an internal prison report and an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.

Homer Venters, assistant commissioner of NYC’s Bureau of Correctional Health Services, said that many people who are sent to prison or jail have a host of mental illnesses, but that the criminal justice system confers new health risks on inmates.

“Jails and prisons harm [inmates’] health,” he said.

In solitary confinement, inmates are commonly allowed to have one hour of out-of-cell time. The remaining 23 hours are spent alone and isolated in a small windowless cell.

The psychological impacts of solitary confinement have been researched for decades; studies show that it can lead to a number of problematic behaviors such as loss of control, rage and aggression.

“Self-harm and other extreme behavior are highly associated with the practice of solitary confinement,” Venters said.

Seven percent of inmates go to solitary confinement, but they represent more than half of all self-harm acts and 47 percent of high lethality self-harm, according to Venters.

Findings from the study show that white inmates are more likely to get a serious mental illness diagnosis than black or Hispanic inmates. That diagnosis has implications for the kind of services people can access.

“There is a lot of stigma with that label, but that designation gets people a lot of social services,” Venters said.

Efforts to divert North Carolina’s youth from the adult criminal justice system were successful this past summer after a decade of failed attempts. Legislation commonly referred to as “Raise the Age” passed in the N.C. House during last year’s short legislative session. It allowed 16- and17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to be tried as juveniles rather than adults, but the bill died when the N.C. Senate declined to take up the bill.

Advocates say they’ll try again this year to get it through the legislature.

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Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.