In a move that many anti-penitentiary activists deem to be progressive, President Barack Obama issued executive orders to ban solitary confinement as a form of punishment for juveniles in federal prisons.
Earlier this year, Obama announced the plan to ban solitary confinement for juveniles because the practice is “overused and has the potential for devastating psychological consequences.”
He began his statement by recalling Kalief Browder, 16, who was arrested in the Bronx after being accused of stealing a backpack in 2010, and then sent to Rikers Island to await trial. He “spent nearly two years in solitary confinement,” Obama wrote. He was released in 2013 “without ever having stood trial or being convicted. He committed suicide at 22.”
In a report that was published this February, Obama “outlines a series of executive actions that also prohibit federal corrections officials from punishing prisoners who commit low-level infractions, with solitary confinement.”
He stipulated that first-time juvenile offenders may not be isolated from the general prison population more than 60 days, significantly reducing the term from the previous 365-day maximum.
The new bill will only affect a small percentage of the approximately 10,000 inmates held captive in solitary confinement in federal facilities, because most inmates are adults. However, prison opponents are hopeful that Obama’s effort will eventually trickle down to the state level nationwide.
Although only a very small number of juveniles actually have to be isolated, doctors are concerned about the long-term effect isolation has on their fertile minds.
“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” Obama wrote in his presentation. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”
Earlier last year, Obama ordered the Justice Department to study the purpose and prolonged effects of solitary confinement in Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities. He has also implemented programs to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society after serving their sentences.
In recent years, a number of states have reformed their laws in response to various complaints and lawsuits stemming from the inhumane treatment of incarcerated people, including the mentally ill.
Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the group’s Stop Solitary Campaign, said that the Bureau of Prisons “has lagged behind a number of the states in reforming solitary confinement and in restricting its use and abuse.”
“It’s absolutely huge,” she said of Obama’s bill. “We rarely have presidents take notice of prison conditions.”
During last June’s speech at an NAACP presentation, Obama noted that solitary confinement “is not going to make us safer.”
The reform includes increasing the amount of time inmates placed in solitary are permitted outside their cells, housing prisoners in the “least restrictive setting necessary” to ensure the general population’s safety, less restrictive housing for inmates who need to be in protective custody and other measures.
“At first glance, I was happy to see an effort to end solitary confinement of juveniles,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E Grassley said. “The good news is that the Judiciary Committee has already taken steps to minimize the solitary confinement of juveniles in both the Sentencing and Prison Reform Bill and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act reauthorization that I authored.”
Approximately 100,000 state and federal inmates are held in solitary confinement across the United States, according to statistics.
Obama concluded, “Today, it’s increasingly overused on people like Kalief, with heartbreaking results, which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem. In America, we believe in redemption.”