NYAPRS Note: President Obama’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post outlines a series of executive actions around the use of solitary confinement for all people in the federal prison system, one of which bans the practice for juveniles in federal facilities. These reforms come 6 months after the President called on the U.S. Department of Justice to study how solitary confinement was being used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Justice Department's report includes “50 guiding principles” that all federal correctional facilities must now follow. They include
- increasing the amount of time inmates placed in solitary can spend outside their cells,
- housing prisoners in the “least restrictive setting necessary” to ensure their safety and that 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.
President Obama is hopeful that federal reforms will compel states to review their respective use of solitary confinement, though several states have already done so over the past two years. Most recently, Illinois and Oregon have said they will exclude those with serious mental health conditions from solitary confinement. Last month, New York reached a settlement with the NYCLU to significantly reduce the use of solitary confinement.
Obama Bans Solitary Confinement For Juveniles In Federal Prisons
By Juliet Eilperin Washington Post January 26
President Obama on Monday announced a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system, saying the practice is overused and has the potential for devastating psychological consequences.
In an op-ed that appears in Tuesday editions of The Washington Post [pasted below], the president outlines a series of executive actions that also prohibit federal corrections officials from punishing prisoners who commit “low-level infractions” with solitary confinement.
The new rules also dictate that the longest a prisoner can be punished with solitary confinement for a first offense is 60 days, rather than the current maximum of 365 days.
The president’s reforms apply broadly to the roughly 10,000 federal inmates serving time in solitary confinement, though there are only a handful of juvenile offenders placed in restrictive housing each year. Between September 2014 and September 2015, federal authorities were notified of just 13 juveniles who were put in solitary in its prisons, officials said. However, federal officials sent adults inmates to solitary for nonviolent offenses 3,800 times in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2014, suggesting that policy change will have more sweeping ramifications.
The reforms come six months after Obama, as part of a broader criminal-justice reform push, ordered the Justice Department to study how solitary confinement was being used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The move is another example of the extent to which the nation’s first African American president now seems willing to tackle delicate questions of race and criminal justice as he closes out his presidency. Obama has also been focused on trying to put in place programs to help ex-offenders reintegrate into society once they have left prison.
“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 op-ed. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”
He said he hoped his reforms at the federal level will serve as a model for states to rethink their rules on the issue.
At least a dozen states have taken steps in the past two years to curtail the use of solitary confinement, either in response to lawsuits or through legislative and administrative changes. An increasing number of studies show a connection between isolating prisoners and higher rates of recidivism.
In recent weeks, Illinois and Oregon, in response to lawsuits, have announced they will exclude seriously mentally ill inmates from solitary confinement, and last month New York state reached a five-year, $62 million settlement with the New York 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. 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.
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,” Fettig said of the president’s decision to change the way the federal system isolates inmates. “We rarely have presidents take notice of prison conditions.”
While Obama is leaving the details of policy implementation to agency officials, the Justice Department's report includes “50 guiding principles” that all federal correctional facilities must now follow. They include increasing the amount of time inmates placed in solitary can spend outside their cells, housing prisoners in the “least restrictive setting necessary” to ensure their safety and that 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.
A congressionally mandated audit of restrictive housing in federal prisons, published last year by the Center for Naval Analyses, found that roughly 60 percent of the inmates whose solitary cases were reviewed had serious underdiagnosed or untreated mental illnesses. That study also found that many individuals put in protective custody for their own safety, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender prisoners and those who are disabled, were regularly placed in solitary confinement.
Some of the states that championed reforms early, including Washington, have found that prisoners placed in restrictive housing — especially just before their release — are more likely to be repeat offenders. One study found that Washington state prisoners who were confined in solitary had a 20 to 25 percent higher recidivism rate than those in less-restrictive housing, and that those who spent time in solitary directly before reentering society were more likely to commit violent crimes.
Early Tuesday morning, Senate Judiciary Committee Charles E Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement that while he’ll “be studying it over the next few days,” it appeared to be justified.
“At first glance I was happy to see an effort to end solitary confinement of juveniles,” 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.”
[What we do and don’t know about the impact of solitary confinement]
Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, served 15 months in federal prison on fraud charges in connection with a a scandal surrounding former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He spent two days in solitary in October because of a scabies outbreak in a Cumberland, Md., facility. Although the isolation was not designed to punish the inmates, Ring said guards took away all his possessions — including paper and pen — and put him in a small cell with just a metal bed, shower and small window. The lack of human contact was the most disorienting part, he said, since guards pushed a tray of food through a slot at assigned meal times and he could “only hear voices down the hall.”
“I don’t know how people do it. I’m not solitary material,” Ring said, adding that it should be used only “as a last resort.”
As many as 100,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States at any given time, according to the White House.
The president begin his op-ed by recounting the story of 16-year-old Bronx resident Kalief Browder, who was sent to Rikers Island in 2010 to await trial after being accused of stealing a backpack. He “spent nearly two years in solitary confinement,” Obama wrote. Browder was released in 2013 without ever having stood trial or being convicted. He committed suicide at 22.
“Today, it’s increasingly overused on people like Kalief, with heartbreaking results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem,” Obama wrote. “In America, we believe in redemption.”
Barack Obama: Why We Must Rethink Solitary Confinement
By Barack Obama Washington Post January 26
In 2010, a 16-year-old named Kalief Browder from the Bronx was accused of stealing a backpack. He was sent to Rikers Island to await trial, where he reportedly endured unspeakable violence at the hands of inmates and guards — and spent nearly two years in solitary confinement.
In 2013, Kalief was released, having never stood trial. He completed a successful semester at Bronx Community College. But life was a constant struggle to recover from the trauma of being locked up alone for 23 hours a day. One Saturday, he committed suicide at home. He was just 22 years old.
Solitary confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s, and the rationale for its use has varied over time. Today, it’s increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results — which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.
There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons — including juveniles and people with mental illnesses. As many as 25,000 inmates are serving months, even years of their sentences alone in a tiny cell, with almost no human contact.
Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.
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.
As president, my most important job is to keep the American people safe. And since I took office, overall crime rates have decreased by more than 15?percent. In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society. How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.
That’s why last summer, I directed Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and the Justice Department to review the overuse of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons. They found that there are circumstances when solitary is a necessary tool, such as when certain prisoners must be isolated for their own protection or in order to protect staff and other inmates. In those cases, the practice should be limited, applied with constraints and used only as a measure of last resort. They have identified common-sense principles that should guide the use of solitary confinement in our criminal justice system.
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.
States that have led the way are already seeing positive results. Colorado cut the number of people in solitary confinement, and assaults against staff are the lowest they’ve been since 2006. New Mexico implemented reforms and has seen a drop in solitary confinement, with more prisoners engaging in promising rehabilitation programs. And since 2012, federal prisons have cut the use of solitary confinement by 25 percent and significantly reduced assaults on staff.
Reforming solitary confinement is just one part of a broader bipartisan push for criminal justice reform. Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep 2.2?million people incarcerated. Many criminals belong behind bars. But too many others, especially nonviolent drug offenders, are serving unnecessarily long sentences. That’s why members of Congress in both parties are pushing for change, from reforming sentencing laws to expanding reentry programs to give those who have paid their debt to society the tools they need to become productive members of their communities. And I hope they will send me legislation as soon as possible that makes our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, less expensive and more effective.
In America, we believe in redemption. We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that “every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.” We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives. And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals.