President Obama ordered the Bureau of Prisons to terminate the use of restrictive housing for juvenile prisoners. Obama’s order was announced in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post on Tuesday. Obama also said he planned to divert inmates with serious mental illness to alternative forms of housing and to limit the use of “punitive segregation,” the statement said. The move came after a Justice Department inquiry that began last summer and examined the overuse of solitary confinement in American prisons.
Officials concluded that solitary should still be used for the “most violent and disruptive inmates,” a statement said. “But as a matter of policy, we believe strongly this practice should be used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints.” The federal prison system is the largest in the country, with 135 prisons and a population of nearly 200,000 inmates. Few of them are juveniles, though.
A Justice Department report published Monday said that as of last December, there were just 71. While solitary confinement is now banned for juveniles, the impact of that policy is small because few juveniles are charged with federal crimes. As of last month, there were 71 juveniles in Bureau of Prisons facilities, And as of last September, only 13 of them had been in solitary confinement at some point in the past year — usually only for a short time.
In September, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, a coalition of state and federal prison authorities, characterized the prolonged isolation of offenders as “a grave problem” in the U.S., where little information exists to evaluate confinement conditions, the policies governing assignments to segregation and the numbers of people being held in such conditions.
As President Obama finishes out his presidency, he has said that he’d redouble his efforts on criminal justice reform, including improving conditions in federal prisons and encouraging states to adopt new rules that hew more closely to updated research on corrections facilities. In July he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, and he has spoken candidly about issues like prison rape and criminal re-entry programs.
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 White House said Obama was adopting a new set of principles that would govern how federal corrections facilities house prisoners. Among them is the edict that inmates “should be housed in the least restrictive setting necessary to ensure their own safety, as well as the safety of staff, other inmates, and the public.” Obama wrote Monday that states should adopt similar rules for their own correctional systems, citing examples in Colorado and New Mexico that he said had yielded positive results for prisoners’ rehabilitation efforts.