Solitary Confinement: Traumatising But Useless

By Jeff Wallace | March 30, 2016

Jeff Wallace 2016(Part 1 of 2)

Solitary confinement is a practice that has been used in the U.S. prison system since 1829. It is based on a Quaker belief that prisoners isolated in stone cells with only a Bible use the time to repent, pray and find introspection.

In other words, it would give the individual the opportunity to learn a lesson from the experience. By 1890, reports showed that many of the inmates went insane, committed suicide or were no longer able to function in society.

When I was incarcerated in the Iowa prison system in 1992, I experienced some of the most horrific treatment at the hands of prison guards and the prison administration.

However, it is the solitary confinement I experienced at the Iowa State Training School for Boys, when I was 14, that I want to tell you about. You may be surprised that the year was 1990 — 100 years after those first reports — and that solitary confinement was still being used across the United States’ juvenile reformatories or state training schools for boys and girls.

Like most state-run facilities, the one I was in was located in a mostly white, rural environment. The staff was from the same monolithic, rural, white community. This is important to know, because a state training school will have hundreds of youth, almost always with a disproportionate number of minorities.

I entered this institution in January 1990 and it wasn’t long before I was placed in the Special Treatment Unit, or solitary confinement, for allegedly throwing up gang signs. This particular act of “throwing up” a gang sign involved me seeing another friend from my city and giving him the “peace” sign.

Immediately, some of the guys in my unit told me that I would be going to the “hole” (solitary confinement) because any hand sign brings “hole” time. I thought they were joking and eased into my pew of the church where we were forced to go every Sunday on campus (or go to the hole).

Within minutes of returning to my unit, I was approached by a youth service worker who frisked and handcuffed me. It was explained that I was going to the Special Treatment Unit for throwing up gang signs. Based on the looks on the faces of other guys in the unit, I felt like I had been handed a death sentence as they led me away. I am sure I served as a warning to other potential “rule violators.”

I was a 14-year-old boy and truly unaware of the physical, mental and emotional pain that awaited me. I was placed in a vehicle and driven to another building that served as the disciplinary segregation unit. I was placed in a cell and told to strip, so they could verify I did not hide any guns or knives under my testicles. The strip search was one of the most humiliating procedures I experienced as a juvenile. It was worse than regularly being required to shower in front of the female youth service workers, which was a common practice in 1990.

After the strip search, I was given a pair of old pajama bottoms, white T-shirt, secondhand underwear and a pair of socks. I was placed in a cell that was approximately 6 feet wide and 15 feet long. The cells of the Special Treatment Unit were filthy. The rooms were rarely cleaned and when the radiator was on, it would heat whatever body fluids had been thrown on it and emit disgusting smells. I had a stainless steel toilet, a mattress and an extremely dirty blanket. (I later learned that these blankets were placed in a laundry bin as juveniles left the facility and given to new admissions to the “hole” — without being sanitized.)

[Related: Solitary Reform Shows Power of Brain Science to Change Policy]

I laid down, stood up, did push-ups, prayed, thought of my family, cried, did sit-ups, drank water and after all that, I would ask the youth service worker who did the occasional round what time it was, only to find that only an hour had passed — if that. The feeling of being in this cell with no stimulation, no air, no interaction with people was one of monotony and a deafening silence. I felt a constant anxiousness and fear of sinking into madness and despair. And that was just during the first night in the Special Treatment Unit.

The next day, I was given a hearing by a team comprised of staff and one client to determine if I committed the alleged rule infraction, and if so, what disciplinary sanction would be delivered.

Needless to say, my hearing, like 99.9 percent of all the others, ended with me being found guilty and given three days in the Special Treatment Unit. When handed the sentence, I poked my chest out and acted as though it wasn’t a big deal. (Inside, I was crumbling like the little 14-year-old boy I was.)

I was told the three days would not start until the next day, because I was allowed to have a mattress during that day, and in order for my “hole time” to count, I was not allowed to have my mattress throughout the day. I also learned that I was not allowed to sleep during the day and if caught sleeping, another day would be added to my sentence. The one escape I thought I would have to help the time pass was sleeping. Now, that had been pulled from underneath my feet. I was crushed and distraught.

I didn’t learn any lessons from that traumatic experience. I was a 14-year-old boy — impulsive, defiant and reactive to this experience. I spent numerous times in the Special Treatment Unit during my stay in that facility, and each experience was just as horrific as the last.

They purposefully manipulated the climate control system so in January the heat was kept extremely high, and in June the air conditioning was set to icy. This resulted in additional sensory deprivation and exponentially increased the disembodied, unreal and torturous existence that led to countless kids having nervous breakdowns and other psychotic episodes. That led them to being placed in four-point restraints and fed a meal where all their food was ground up and baked into a “loaf” so they could not throw it at the staff.

While this was in the 1990s, we should not believe these practices have been abandoned. There are still some state and privately run facilities with similar conditions, still using solitary confinement. These facilities usually subscribe to the American Correctional Association standards, which, in my opinion, is a dereliction of duty and a violation of juveniles’ rights. They need to be better regulated. Without a higher degree of regulation, these facilities end up acting as feeders for the adult prison system, and I’m proof of that.

The time I spent in solitary confinement did not cause me to repent. I believe it paved the way for me to leave the Iowa State Training School for Boys and “graduate” to prison in 1992.

Subsequently, I would go on to serve six years in the Iowa Department of Corrections, spending four of those years in various forms of solitary confinement. I’m not the only example. There are far too many juveniles who enter the system early and never leave. While many things have changed in the juvenile justice system since the 1990s, we still have a lot of lessons to learn.

In my next column, I will discuss solitary confinement in the adult prison system.

Jeff Wallace has spent most of his life studying the effects of the policy and procedures followed by the criminal justice system on at-risk youth — first as one of those youths and then through his undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminal justice. He is founder and president of His email See his Tedx talk at

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