WASHINGTON (Tribune News Services) — President Obama has ordered the Bureau of Prisons to significantly curtail the use of solitary confinement — including an outright ban on the use of restrictive housing for juvenile prisoners.
Obama first outlined the action to be published Tuesday, in which he said he's adopting the recommendations of a Justice Department review of the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.
"The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance," Obama wrote. "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 of last November, 8,625 federal prisoners — about 5% of the total federal prison population — were in solitary confinement, with 1,071 of them locked up alone for more than 90 days. Under the recommendations adopted by the president, the Bureau of Prisons would regularly re-evaluate those placements, offer more mental health treatment, and eliminate the use of solitary confinement for low-level infractions.
Solitary confinement for juveniles would be banned outright, but the impact of that policy is small because few juveniles are charged with federal crimes. As of last month, there were 71 juveniles in Bureau of Prisons facilities, And as of last September, only 13 of them had been in solitary confinement at some point in the past year — usually only for a short time.
But Obama said he hopes the federal action will also "serve as a model for state and local corrections systems," where most prisoners — and the vast majority of juveniles — are housed.
In September, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, a coalition of state and federal prison authorities, characterized the prolonged isolation of offenders as "a grave problem'' in the U.S., where little information exists to evaluate confinement conditions, the policies governing assignments to segregation and the numbers of people being held in such conditions.
In perhaps the most comprehensive audit of "administrative segregation'' in the U.S., the association of prison administrators and Yale Law School concluded in September that as many as 100,000 people were being held in some form of restricted housing in America's prisons. (The number did not include inmates in local jails, juvenile detention, immigration holding facilities or military prisons.) A decade ago, according to the report, estimates varied from 25,000 to 80,000.
"Most jurisdictions had no fixed time limits on administrative segregation,'' the report found. "In a substantial number, people remained in segregation for more than three years.''
Among the report's most unsettling findings: Of the 30 prison systems that tracked how inmates were prepared for release, it found that in 2013, an estimated 4,400 offenders were released directly from solitary to their communities, with no transition period.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has cautioned against the risks of solitary confinement.
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has long studied the effects of prolonged isolation, said the conditions of confinement represent "the most extreme example of how far our incarceration policies have gone in the wrong direction.''
“The U.S. has long stood virtually alone on the world stage, with regard to the sheer number of people condemned to cruel isolation,” Amnesty International USA spokeswoman Jasmine Heiss said Monday. “The recommendations produced by the Department of Justice represent a momentous break with this shameful legacy, and an acknowledgement that tens of thousands of human beings should not be condemned to live in a cage, hidden in the shadows of the U.S. criminal justice system.''
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