In an op-ed that appears in Tuesday editions of The Washington Post, 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.”
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.”