President Obama on Monday called for a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system, citing that the practice is overused and has the potential for devastating psychological consequences.
The move, about which Mr. Obama wrote in an op-ed article published by the Washington Post on Monday night, adds the weight of the federal government to a growing movement among state prison administrators who have begun sharply limiting or ending the use of solitary confinement.
Obama wrote, “The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.”
The Washington Post reported that Amy Fettig, the senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the group’s Stop Solitary Campaign, said in an interview that the Bureau of Prisons “has lagged behind a number of the states in reforming solitary confinement and in restricting its use and abuse.”
Fettig said of Obama’s decision to change the way the federal system isolated inmates, “It’s absolutely huge. We rarely have presidents take notice of prison conditions.”
Some states have recently adhered to the federal government on solitary confinement reforms. Last month, New York announced it would place one-quarter of the state’s 4,000 prisoners in restrictive units in less isolated housing following a settlement with the New York Civil Liberties Union. In September, a California court ruling ended indeterminate-length sentences in restrictive housing, releasing almost all prisoners who spent more than 10 years in prolonged isolation, including more than 400 inmates in Pelican Bay State Prison, into the general inmate population.
“There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons — including juveniles and people with mental illnesses,” Obama said in his op-ed. “As many as 25,000 inmates are serving months, even years of their sentences alone in a tiny cell, with almost no human contact.”
The Justice Department’s report includes “50 guiding principles” that all federal correctional facilities must now follow. The executive actions prohibit wardens from using solitary confinement as punishment for inmates who commit “low-level infractions” inside prison walls, according to the White House. The measures call for an increase in the number of hours solitary confinement inmates spend outside of their cells, the expansion of alternative housing units for inmates with mental illnesses, the hiring of more staff psychologists, and policies that discourage wardens from putting inmates in solitary confinement during the last 180 days of their prison terms, “making it easier for inmates to adjust when they return to the community.”
Obama wrote, “The Justice Department has completed its review, and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system. These include banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells. These steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement — and hopefully serve as a model for state and local corrections systems. And I will direct all relevant federal agencies to review these principles and report back to me with a plan to address their use of solitary confinement.”
Think Progress reported that the president is also including a request for $24 million in the next fiscal year budget to address mental health concerns in federal prisons. In order to obtain that funding, Obama has to depend on the bipartisan support he’s proclaimed as he pushes criminal justice reform during his remaining time in office. Conservatives have joined the fight to end solitary confinement on the basis that it constitutes a form of torture and undermines principles of morality and personhood.
[Photo by Mike Groll/AP]