Imprisoned journalist, author, and human rights activist Martin Gottesfeld contributed to this article from solitary confinement at MCC New York on the 82nd day of his prison hunger strike More information about Marty can be found at, as well as, the corresponding Facebook page, and Twitter Account.

As I look around the stark surroundings of my solitary cell, wrapping up a lonely Christmas Eve and the 2nd full day of the 3rd fluid stoppage during my nearly 3 month hunger strike, I remind myself it could be much worse. I could be an American kid stuck in the “troubled teen industry.”

What is the “Troubled Teen Industry?”

For a hefty price, there are for-profit institutions that tell desperate families concerned by their children’s behavior exactly what they need to hear; that effective, compassionate, but firm care is available from qualified experts for whatever seems wrong with their kids; from ADD to drug use to bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, even autism. If you Goggle “troubled teen help,” and take a look at the ads you will see what I mean. The problem is, according to The Government Accountability Office (GAO), American Bar Association, and The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, due to lax or sometimes non-existent state oversight, the promises in these advertisements are often completely fraudulent. Sadly, instead of receiving effective treatment from qualified mental health experts, the children of the desperate parents duped into spending a small fortune on these facilities are often abused and even tortured, a word neither now-retired Congressman George Miller nor the Managing Director of Forensic Audits and Special Investigations for the GAO used lightly in Congressional hearings on the matter.  

Having spent the last three years as an activist exposing this mistreatment of our nation’s youth as well as having now experienced more than ten months in federal prison, including the last 40 days in its version of solitary confinement, I am now able to compare and contrast the two.


isolation room

An insolation room found at trouble teen industry program Spring Creek Lodge, Montana


Solitary Confinement

For example, the picture above is the view inside a euphemistically labeled “time out room” as discovered by the flabbergasted parents of a Spring Creek Lodge survivor. Like its troubled teen industry counterparts, and modern prisons, Spring Creek Lodge doesn’t use the term “solitary confinement.” Instead the bewildered parents referenced above were told their son had been sent to “time out.” However, what they pictured when they heard such language did not reflect the reality depicted in this photograph. You see, their son spent so long in isolation in that closet-sized cell, he carved his name, and “Let Freedom Ring” into the wall. He had also spent enough time without access to oral hygiene that he needed maxillary surgery.

Sadly, such experiences are far more common in this industry than you might think. There are widespread reports of children spending a month or longer in such seclusion, without education, social and family contact, and legitimate mental health services. One program called “High Impact” even kept kids in dog crates.

So, compared to isolation in the troubled teen industry, my federal prison solitary cell is a suite at the Waldorf. I have a working toilet and sink, a desk, a thin hard mattress, but a mattress nonetheless; proper lighting; access to my attorneys, a monthly call to my wife, hygiene products; and although I turn them down, three possibly roach infested meals per day. The smallest solitary cell I’ve seen in my nearly yearlong prison stay is three times larger than the one in that picture.

Additionally, while I’ve encountered no shortage of dubious mental health “experts” in federal prison who allow mentally ill people to be kept in solitary for years at a time, exacerbating whatever issues likely landed those unfortunate souls in such dire straits in the first place, the sometimes totally untrained and unlicensed “professionals” in the troubled teen industry place kids in various hasher forms of isolation that are as diverse as the myriad array of programs themselves, but often share common characteristics. For example, many industry institutions punish children who attempt to run away by secluding them for a month or more while nearly naked in cold rooms with lights that stay on all night. Borrowing language from seemingly legitimate psychiatric practice, as the industry often does to enhance its own image of legitimacy, facilities often use terms like “observation,” or “precaution,” for such tactics and justify such abuse on the grounds that if a child is desperate enough to run away, they might try to take their own lives. However, in legitimate psychiatric care institutions, such emergency measures are monitored by doctors, and patients are given crisis therapy, not subject to such conditions for set periods of time as kid are in the industry, but rather cleared out as quickly as possible.

In federal prison, this process can be as simple as the inmate telling a mental health practitioner that they no longer feel like hurting themselves. However, one notable exception is following a force-feeding, where inmates who often weren’t considering suicide before such callous brutality, can find themselves nearly naked in intentionally freezing rooms, labeled suicidal until they eat “voluntarily.” But, I digress.

So, despite the fact that solitary confinement has been found to be more damaging to children, who require social contact for normal development, kids in the troubled teen industry, too often suffer harsher, longer, and more isolating forms of it, than hardened criminals. For many of the industry survivors I’ve worked with, these seclusions rooms are a source of anxiety disorders, claustrophobia, PTSD, panic attacks, and recurring nightmares that last throughout adulthood. While all of these after effects, can also be acquired by adults who endure solitary, in my experience they are far more common among troubled teen industry survivors, as are the related suicides. In fact, following a string of children who took their own lives, in 2010 the State of Georgia, they banned seclusion in its schools.  



Probably the most degrading experience of my life has been being shackled, cuffed, and paraded into court in front of my family as if I had already been found guilty before my trial has even began. Whenever I feel the grasp of iron around my wrists, waist, and ankles, I remind myself that my only “crime” has been acting to prevent the all too often deadly abuse and torture of children. I tell myself that just as history does not judge the slaves who endured similar humiliation, but rather looks down on the people who subjected their fellow human beings to such barbarism, the passage of time will see my character placed above that of those who attempt to degrade me now by turning me into such a spectacle. Further, I know in my heart children in the industry experience far worse and it’s the individuals responsible who belong and will one day find themselves paraded into court.

The restraints placed on me are mechanical; handcuffs, chains, leg irons, and such. While it’s true that some troubled teens heading into the industry are cuffed, by the escort services hired by parents to legally kidnap them for their homes in the wee hours and bring them to facilities by force, the far more common type of restraint employed by such institutions is the adult-on-child variety. At first, the supposed concept of adults holding a child still to prevent them from harming themselves or others may seem less traumatic than subjecting them to chains and metal shackles, but in practice all too often this is not the case.

First off, while children are only supposed to be restrained to prevent imminent harm, staff at many programs use restraints as a disciplinary measure, and while I and the majority of my fellow inmates here have never been violently restrained by the feds, the person-on-person restraints nearly universal to the industry always involve adults overpowering children with physical force. Just imagine being an autistic child in the middle of a tantrum that you can’t control and that’s not your fault, but instead of being buffered by adults, having 4 or 5 of them wrestle you to the ground and hold you still by your head and appendages. The physical force inherent to these restraints, and the tendency for industry staff to be improperly trained and overly violent, as well as for them to immobilize struggling children unnecessarily for hours, make these severely traumatic, both physically and mentally. Many programs even rely on untrained children to violently restrain their peers, and again it’s common for kids to be restricted as a means of coercion; to force them to go to places or do things they don’t want to, such as going into isolation rooms; as well as a form of punishment for infractions like talking out of turn or even looking out a window. On top of the emotional damage; black eyes, broken noses, broken arms and legs, even death from suffocation and physical trauma are all common results. In fact, physical restraints and suicide are by far the most common ways children die in the industry, and the GAO specifically cited violent, often deadly restraints, sometimes lasting 8 hours or more when asked about torture in these programs.

U.S. Government Accountability Office Congressional Q&A on torture in the troubled teen industry



These are just two of the many reasons I’d rather spend my holidays on a hunger strike in solitary confinement at a federal prison than spend one hour as an American kid trapped in the troubled teen industry. When I share verified accounts of what children regularly endure in such places with hardened convicts, they often look at me in shock before affirming that nothing they’ve encountered in state nor federal prison comes close to such brutality, and if you think I’m exaggerating, I invite you to spend some time watching the relevant Congressional hearings available here and here. Stay tuned for Part 2, where I will discuss other common forms of physical and mental abuse in the troubled teen industry, as well as insights into how the industry has been able to get away with all this for so long, operating with a seemingly impenetrable veil of impunity. If I can prevent such a fate from befalling one single child, then everything, every single holiday, birthday, and anniversary that I miss will be worthwhile and that’s why I still smile in prison.