NYT: President Obama Speaks Out on Solitary

NYAPRS Note: A follow-up by the New York Times Editorial Board regarding President Obama’s announcement to take executive action on solitary confinement policies in federal prisons…


President Obama Speaks Out on Solitary

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD New York Times Feb. 2, 2016


President Obama sent a powerful message last week when he barred federal prisons from holding juveniles in solitary confinement and ordered the Bureau of Prisons to undertake sweeping changes in how solitary is used throughout the federal system.


By taking a new course at the federal level, Mr. Obama hopes to accelerate changes that are already underway in many state and local corrections systems.


Solitary confinement, which is often used arbitrarily and to punish minor rule infractions, is a form of torture. It is psychologically damaging even to healthy people and increases the likelihood of suicide among the young and the mentally ill.


Announcing the new policy in an op­ed essay in The Washington Post, Mr. 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.”


He cited the shameful case of Kalief Browder, who was arrested in New York City at the age of 16 in 2010 and jailed for three years without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. Mr. Browder spent two of those years in solitary confinement, endured “unspeakable violence at the hands of inmates and guards” and tried to kill himself several times. He was released in 2013, but never fully recovered, and he hanged himself last year.


Despite horror stories like this, as many as 100,000 people — including juveniles and people with mental illnesses — are held in solitary confinement and other forms of restrictive housing in American prisons, according to a new report by the Justice Department. Inmates often spend months or even years in small, cramped cells with virtually no human contact.


According to the report, the Bureau of Prisons in recent years has cut the number of inmates in solitary confinement and other restrictive housing.


Federal officials believe that the new policies recommended in the report will lead to additional reductions in restrictive housing populations. One recommendation is to divert inmates with serious mental illness to mental health units; another is to ban the use of “punitive segregation” for low­level infractions.


The new federal policy sets an excellent example for states and local governments that have yet to undertake reform.