President Obama has announced that solitary confinement will no longer be used as punishment for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system, citing that the practice has been “overused and has the potential for devastating psychological consequences.” The reform is part of a program to improve conditions in prisons throughout the nation, and is expected to affect about 10,000 inmates under 18, as well as prisoners who committed non-serious offenses.
The White House said Mr. Obama was also adopting Justice Department recommendations that would limit solitary confinement for prisoners with mental illness and avoid using the practice as a tool to segregate prisoners who face threats from fellow inmates.
In an op-ed published by The Washington Post, the president wrote, “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” the president wrote in his op-ed. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”
In the meantime, he acknowledged that there are times when solitary may be needed in cases where inmates pose a serious threat to the staff at the prison, as well as to himself, but stated that it should only be used on a limited basis, and only as a last resort.
The White House said Obama was also adopting Justice Department recommendations that would limit solitary confinement for prisoners with mental illness and avoid using the practice as a tool to segregate prisoners who face threats from fellow inmates (including homosexuals).
The order comes as a result of a review of solitary confinement’s overuse in US conducted by Attorney General Loretta Lynch (under executive order).Although the President is leaving the details of policy implementation to agency officials, Lynch’s report includes “50 guiding principles” that all federal correctional facilities must now follow, including increasing the amount of time inmates placed in solitary can spend outside of their cells, housing prisoners in the “least restrictive setting necessary” to ensure their safety and those of others, putting inmates who need to be in protective custody in less-restrictive settings, and developing policies to discourage putting inmates in solitary during the last 180 days of their terms. In fact, Washington State was among several states that found that prisoners placed in restrictive housing (especially just before their release) are “more likely to be repeat offenders and commit violent crimes when on the outside.”
To date, several others including California, New York Illinois and Oregon have taken measures to cut back on the use of solitary confinement in response to lawsuits, as well as through legislative changes instigated by changes in administration. In fact, New York State recently reached a 5-year, $62 million settlement with the local Civil Liberties Union in which it pledged to significantly cut the number of prisoners in solitary as well as the maximum time they could stay there. In addition the ACLU noted that California reached a settlement in September, pledging to overhaul the way it treats almost 3,000 inmates who are frequently kept alone for more than 22- hours a day in their cells.