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President Obama: “We Must Rethink Solitary Confinement”

Under reforms announced by President Obama this week for federal prisons, juvenile offenders cannot be placed in solitary confinement, and the use of the punishment for first-time offenders will be reduced from a maximum of 365 days to 60 days.

The President announced the federal solitary confinement reforms in a Facebook message and an op-ed for The Washington Post.

The President used the example of Kalief Browder, who in 2010 as a 16-year-old was sent to Rikers Island after being accused of stealing a backpack. Browder was held at Rikers until 2013, having never stood a trial prior to his release, two of which were in solitary confinement.

“Life was a constant struggle to recover from the trauma of being locked up alone for 23 hours a day,” the President wrote, stating that Browder committed suicide at home at the age of 22.

The President cites a growing body of research that demonstrates the negative psychological impact that solitary confinement has on individuals, both during their time in prison as well as afterwards.

In August 2013, Scientific American opined that “solitary confinement is cruel and ineffective.”

Last summer, the Attorney General and the Justice Department were directed by the President to review the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and to produce recommendations for best practices and potential reform.

The Justice Department review determined in some cases solitary is a necessary tool, such as when prisoners need to be isolated for their own protection or that of staff and other inmates, but urged judicious and limited use of the practice.

The President announced in his op-ed that he was adopting the Justice Department’s recommendations to reform the federal prison system, including banning solitary confinement for juveniles, expanding treatment for the mentally-ill in response to low-level infractions, and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells.

According to the President, 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary could be affected by the decision.

Agencies are being directed to review the principles contained in the Justice Department’s recommendations and to develop a plan to address their own use of solitary confinement.

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union and director of the group’s Stop Solitary Campaign was quoted in The Washington Post as calling the President’s action on solitary confinement “absolutely huge.”

“We rarely have presidents take notice of prison conditions,” Fettig noted.

Posted in General News

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