Criminal justice system's 'dark secret': Teenagers in solitary confinement

The increasing practice of prosecuting juveniles as adults and then sending them to do hard time in adult prisons has resulted in an unintended consequence – the consigning of juveniles to solitary confinement to isolate them from the risks of life in the general population. Over the past five years, about 100,000 juveniles have been held in adult jails and prisons, according to the Department of Justice. Many of these teens have done at least part of their time in solitary confinement. The psychological effects of such treatment can be devastating, as highlighted in this recent Rock Center report. - CCJR Staff


As more and more minors serve time in adult prisons, a growing number are placed in solitary confinement. Officials say it's to protect the minors from the adult prison population. Some of those who served time in solitary as teens and their advocates say it's a harmful practice and a dark secret of the criminal justice system. Rock Center Special Correspondent Ted Koppel reports. 

By Elizabeth Chuck, NBC News, and Deirdre Cohen and Sarah Koch, Rock Center 

Courtesy of the Stewart family 

James Stewart, who was arrested after being charged with vehicular homicide when he was 17, is seen in an undated school photo. 

James Stewart, a 17-year-old from Denver who committed suicide while in solitary confinement, had never been to jail before August of 2008. That was when, under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, Stewart had gotten into a head-on car collision, killing a 32-year-old man. 

Because of the severity of his crime, Stewart was charged with vehicular homicide – and charged as an adult. His family couldn’t make bail, so Stewart was placed in the Denver County Jail while he awaited his sentence. 

There was just one problem: Since he was a minor, Stewart was ordered to be put in protective custody, separate from the adult prisoners— and the best protection the jail had to offer was solitary confinement. 

Weeks later, the psychological impact was too much. After a brief reprieve from solitary to be in a shared cell with another juvenile offender, Stewart was sent back to isolation after a minor argument with his cellmate.  According to his older sister, Nicole Miera, Stewart took his own life after less than 10 minutes of being back in what inmates called "the hole." 

"It was stated that that when he got in there, he was pretty upset," Miera told NBC's Ted Koppel, her eyes filling with tears. "He had taken a sheet and he had wrapped around his neck and just twisted until he couldn't twist anymore." 

Stewart was one of many juveniles who are in adult jails and prisons across America. Not all of their stories end as tragically as his, but the increasingly blurry line between juvenile offenders and adult correctional facilities have made many wonder if better solutions are needed for this growing population