Obama Encourages Policy Change To Ban Solitary Confinement for Juveniles

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January 26, 2016; Washington Post

On the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court decision for juvenile offenders on Monday, President Barack Obama has come forward with executive orders calling for the ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders. The Washington Post published an op-ed by the president in which he rehashes what many criminal reform advocates having been saying for years, not only about the detriment of overusing solitary confinement, but also the need to treat juvenile offenders differently from adult inmates:

Last summer, I directed Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and the Justice Department to review the overuse of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons. […] 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.

NPQ has written about the overuse and the damaging effects of solitary confinement, including the penchant for inmates who have been confined to solitary to reoffend if released. The UN reported in 2011 that just 15 days in solitary qualifies as torture. The longest serving American prisoner in solitary confinement has spent more than four decades alone—and he’s still there, despite efforts for his release.

Obama and the DOJ’s recommendations do not say that solitary confinement should be eliminated entirely, but rather that it should be used sparingly and in certain situations, such as when its use is protecting the prison staff and inmate population. DOJ recommendations also indicate that the longest an inmate can be held in solitary confinement for a first offense is 60 days, not 365, as the rule currently stands. The recommendations say low offense inmates should not be held in solitary confinement at all, regardless if it’s their first or subsequent offense. Vox.com has a good delineation of further policy changes in the recommendations.

Since Obama does not have authority or jurisdiction over state inmates, the changes would only impact federal inmates, of which only 26 are juveniles. However, he does say he hopes the changes will serve as a model and trickle down to states.

The initial responses to the president’s op-ed have been positive, remarking on how his voice is a powerful one in the criminal reform effort.

“It’s absolutely huge,” said Amy Fettig, staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, on Obama’s call for changes to solitary confinement policies. “We rarely have presidents take notice of prison conditions.”

While the police changes are limited to the federal level, states have adopted reforms to solitary confinement usage individually. According to the Washington Post, Illinois and Oregon have both had to respond to lawsuits and change their policies on housing mentally ill inmates in solitary. Last month, New York also announced a major effort to overhaul the solitary confinement usage in its prisons, in a $62 million lawsuit agreement with the New York Civil Liberties Union. While glacial, reform is taking place, and these recommendations will persuade states to clean up their prisons.

“This is a game changer,” said Fettig. “There’s no question that the Bureau of Prisons is the largest, most influential prison system in the country. What they do has influence on what the states do and what’s considered best practice in the field. So to have them dramatically change their system, there’s no question that is going to be leadership that some states and local jurisdictions are going to follow.”

The recommendations and the op-ed align with Obama’s efforts to enact criminal justice reform before he leaves office. He has said he wants to spend his last year in office addressing several issues, including mandatory drug sentences and helping ex-felons re-enter society. Particularly in light of the publicized shootings of young black Americans, criminal reform has permeated the social consciousness, a fact that Obama can capitalize on in reforms coming this year.—Shafaq Hasan