President Barack Obama said Monday he was moving to ban solitary confinement for juveniles and low-level offenders in federal prisons, a change long sought by advocates of prison reform who argue the punishment exacts a lasting mental toll.
In a Washington Post op-ed, Obama said he came to his decision after a review by the Justice Department determined the practice reduces the chances that prisoners can be rehabilitated into society.
Writing that solitary confinement has been “increasingly overused … with heartbreaking results,” Obama said he was ordering federal penitentiaries to cease using the punishment on juvenile offenders — in the federal justice system, those under 18 — and on prisoners who committed non-serious offenses.
He said that when an inmate poses a threat to staff or to himself, solitary confinement was necessary. But he said it should “be limited, applied with constraints and used only as a measure of last resort.”
The White House said Obama was also adopting Justice Department recommendations that would limit solitary confinement for prisoners with mental illness and avoid using the practice as a tool to segregate prisoners who face threats from fellow inmates. He wrote in the Post that the move would affect 10,000 federal prisoners.
“The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance,” Obama wrote in the Post op-ed. “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.”
In his final year in office, Obama has said that he’d redouble his efforts on criminal justice reform, including improving conditions in federal prisons and encouraging states to adopt new rules that hew more closely to updated research on corrections facilities. In July he became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, and he has spoken candidly about issues like prison rape and criminal re-entry programs.
The goal, officials have said, is to improve the chances that incarcerated Americans become functioning members of society after serving their sentences.
“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,” Obama wrote Monday.
Along with the new rules for solitary confinement, the White House said Obama was adopting a new set of principles that would govern how federal corrections facilities house prisoners. Among them is the edict that inmates “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.”
Prison officials, the White House said, should always be able to “clearly articulate” why an inmate is placed in solitary confinement and have a plan for returning the inmate to regular housing.
Obama wrote Monday that states should adopt similar rules for their own correctional systems, citing examples in Colorado and New Mexico that he said had yielded positive results for prisoners’ rehabilitation efforts.