In a major reform, US President Barack Obama has banned solitary confinement for juveniles in prisons, saying the practice is overused and can cause long-lasting and devastating psychological consequences.
Obama made these announcements in an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “Why we must rethink solitary confinement”. It came as part of a series of reforms aimed at reducing the use of solitary confinement in federal jails.
“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,” he wrote.
These steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement. Obama also directed all relevant federal agencies to review these principles and report back to him with a plan to address their use of solitary confinement.
He also cited the case of Kalief Browder, who in 2010, aged 16, was accused of stealing a backpack and was put into the notorious Rikers Island prison in New York to await trial.
Browder was released in 2013. Having never stood trial, he struggled to cope with the trauma of solitary confinement and killed himself at the age of 22.
There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in US 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, he wrote.
Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences, he said.
“It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behaviour. 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,” Obama wrote.
Observing that the US is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance, Obama wrote that 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 said.
He wrote that reforming solitary confinement is just one part of a broader bipartisan push for criminal justice reform.
“Every year, we spend USD 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,” he said.
According to the Guiding Principles released by the White House, inmates in all prisons 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.