SolitaryA neuroscientist explains the effects of isolation on the developing brain

Dr. Bruce Perry is a child psychiatrist and senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston and adjunct professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

His neuroscientific research has focused largely on the effects of trauma on brain development.

He has consulted on high-profile cases involving children in crisis, including the Columbine High School massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Waco, Texas, siege, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Here, Perry explains to The Center for Investigative Reporting how it feels to be a teenager locked in solitary confinement, and the effects of isolation on the developing brain. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The Center for Investigative Reporting: How do kids experience isolation?

Dr. Bruce Perry: Almost all of them start to retreat into their inner world because there’s nowhere else to get stimulation. Some of these kids, without any external relational anchors, start to go crazy. They’ll have ruminations about what they’re going to do to that person who got them in trouble, and that can morph into murderous fantasies. The brain is so used to a variety of sensory input that in the absence of that, over time, they start to hallucinate and get paranoid.

You can literally make people crazy by keeping them in solitary.

CIR: We hear a lot of stories about prolonged isolation, but what are the effects of just a few days of solitary confinement on kids?

Dr. Perry: They end up getting these very intense doses of dissociative experience, and they get it in an unpredictable way. They’ll get three days in isolation. Then they’ll come back on the unit and get two days in isolation. They’ll come back out and then get one day. They end up with a pattern of activating this dissociative coping mechanism. The result is that when they’re confronted with a stressor later on, they will have this extreme disengagement where they’ll be kind of robotic, overly compliant, but they’re not really present. I’ve seen that a lot with these kids. They’ll come out, and they’re little zombies. The interpretation by the staff is that they’ve been pacified.

“We’ve broken him.”

But basically what you’ve done is you’ve traumatized this person in a way that if this kid was in somebody’s home, you would charge that person with child abuse.

CIR: You’ve worked with young people inside solitary confinement units. What are those places like?

Dr. Perry: They tend to be stereotypical institutional settings with cinderblock walls and tile floors and colors that are just drab, almost depressing in their nature. A lot of echoing sounds and reverberation. These are sensory experiences that are atypical. The natural world has a certain ebb and flow, it has a rhythm to it, a smoothness to the sounds that we hear. You go into institutional settings and the architecture creates a sensory environment that is unfamiliar and unsettling. Some places don’t have natural light. Some keep the lights on all the time, so your biorhythms get all messed up. Some places will be eerily silent, particularly if you’re in isolation, and some places will be persistently noisy, so any effort to sleep or regulate yourself is interfered with. The environment is physiologically disrespectful.

CIR: Kids in isolation must lose all sense of control. What’s the impact of that?

Dr. Perry: One of things that helps us regulate our stress response is a sense of control. With solitary, when you start to take away any option, any choice, you’re literally taking somebody with a dysregulated stress response system, like most of these individuals in jail, and you’re making it worse. The more you try to take control, the more you are inhibiting the ability of these individuals to develop self-control, which is what we want them to do.

CIR: How does it affect a kid’s sense of self-worth to be locked away from everyone else?

Dr. Perry: Most of these kids feel marginalized to start with. They feel like they’re bad, they did something wrong, they don’t fit in. And isolation is essentially the ultimate marginalization. You’re so marginalized you don’t even fit in with the misfits, and we are going to exclude you from the group in an extreme way. In some ways it’s the ultimate message that we don’t care for you. We are neurobiologically interdependent creatures. All of our sensory apparatus is bias toward forming and maintaining relationships with human beings. When you are not part of the group, it’s a fundamental biological rejection.

CIR: We interviewed several teenagers about their experience in solitary confinement and asked them what they think about while they’re in there. Almost without exception, they went straight to grief and loss, loved ones who had died, often prematurely and in horrible ways. Why do you think that is?

Dr. Perry: Isolation, the experience of being separated from human beings, for them, is reminiscent of the separation that happened earlier from people who were meaningful to them. The feeling is evocative of the last time they felt so disconnected or felt the loss of human interactions. The amount of loss and exposure to violence and trauma that most of these kids have is pretty astounding. So it triggers relational-based memories, and right at the top of those would be memories around loss and grief.

CIR: A common argument from corrections professionals is that they have no choice but to isolate kids who are unruly or violent. How should we be designing our juvenile justice facilities so that they not only promote healthy development, but also provide safety without using solitary?

Dr. Perry: There’s an approach called collaborative problem-solving, which has shown tremendous effectiveness with dysregulated, explosive individuals. It’s not like we’re going to ignore the issue, but we’re going to acknowledge it and talk about a solution that we come up with together. And when you do that, it literally defuses things in a very powerful way.

It’s ironic that in many of these models of intervention — mental health, education, juvenile justice — rather than taking advantage of the major biological unit of leverage we have for healthy development, which is the relationship, we actually make it more relationally impoverished.

This Q&A was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, an award-winning, nonprofit newsroom based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Adding to this story – Doré E. Frances, Phd – 

On any given day America incarcerates 54,000 youth within the juvenile justice system

Throughout the U.S., places that incarcerate youth come in many forms and take on various names; training schools, diagnostic centers, assessment centers, residential treatment facilities, wilderness camps, forestry camps, shelters, boot camps, detention centers, juvenile halls, juvenile correctional centers, youth study centers, campuses, cottages, youth development centers, academies, challenge centers, youth centers, children’s centers, youth camps, group homes, and girls or boys schools. While the US Department of Justice reports that youth incarceration rates have decreased 50% between 1999 and 2013, too many youth are still locked up, and racial disparities among committed youth have widened.

One of the most harmful, ineffective and expensive forms of incarceration is the youth prison, the signature feature of nearly every state juvenile justice system. The map on the above link identifies approximately 80 facilities in the U.S. that were established more than 100 years ago or have 100 beds or more. 

The inventory does not include all the state, local and private facilities that confine youth under the custody of the juvenile justice system, such as youth prisons under 100 beds, juvenile detention centers (which typically hold youth while the court processes their case but also incarcerate some youth who are awaiting long-term placement), juvenile halls, and assessment centers where youth are sent to receive evaluations to determine whether they will receive long-term commitments. In order to dismantle youth prisons and address the problem of the youth incarceration complex, we must first identify where our kids are being locked up.

It is the intention of the work I do with families to sure that no child entering treatment of any kind is confined or isolated in such a way that it becomes harmful to their development. I have visited a lot of programs over the last 20 years which are and have remained on a “DO NOT PLACE” list. These are just a few on the current list. 


Mt. Meigs Campus


McLaughlin Youth Center


Adobe Mountain School


Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center

Platte Valley Youth Services Center

Ridge View Youth Services Center


Gulf Academy/Hastings Comprehensive Mental Health Treatment Program

Highlands Youth Academy


Augusta Youth Development Campus

Eastman Youth Development Campus


Illinois Youth Center


Eldora State Training School for Boys


Swanson Center for Youth


Long Creek Youth Development Center


Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center


Caliente Youth Center

Nevada Youth Training Center

New Hampshire

John H. Sununu Youth Services Center

New Jersey

Johnstone Campus

New Mexico

Youth Development and Diagnostic Center

New York

Brookwood Secure Center

Industry Residential Center

Rhode Island

Rhode Island Training School

South Carolina

Broad River Road Complex


Gainesville State School

Giddings State School


Echo Glen Children’s Center 

Green Hill School 

Nacelle Youth Camp


Lincoln Hills School/Copper Lake School


Wyoming Boys School