Fixing a “broken system”—a step towards ending solitary confinement in prisons

President Obama announced a series of executive actions that included a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison.

Photo by SAUL LOEB (Getty Images).

Last week, President Obama announced to the nation that he was taking executive action in prohibiting the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison.  This ban is just one of several initiatives the President has taken in reforming the United States’ criminal justice system.  These actions include prohibiting the use of solitary confinement as punishment for low-level infractions, decreasing the maximum amount of time a prisoner can stay in solitary confinement from 365 days to sixty days, and expanding treatment for the mentally ill.

The President’s reform applies to about 10,000 federal inmates across the United States including about seventy-one juveniles.

These reforms resulted from President Obama ordering the Justice Department to research and study solitary confinement and how it was being used in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and the Justice Department found that although there are certain circumstances that solitary confinement is necessary, it needs to be used as a last resort.  The Justice Department issued a report that gives federal correctional facilities fifty guideline principles that they must follow.  The principles include increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary confinement can spend outside of their cell.

The President’s reform applies to about 10,000 federal inmates across the United States including about seventy-one juveniles.  Between September 2014 and September 2015, solitary confinement was used about 3,800 times for nonviolent offenses and about thirteen juveniles.  Even though the ban of using solitary confinement is only applied to juveniles, the policy change will have wide ramifications for adult federal inmates.

Solitary confinement has been described as a “prison within a prison.” 

Supporters of the reform are hoping states will be encouraged to rethink their policies on the use of solitary confinement. In the past two years, about twelve states have taken steps to minimize the use of solitary confinement.  Recently, Illinois and Oregon announced they will no longer allow mentally ill inmates to be put into solitary confinement.  New York and California have pledged to drastically decrease the number of prisoners put in solitary.  Colorado and New Mexico already have seen positive results among their prison systems after cutting the number of inmates put in solitary confinement.  Assaults against staff are at its lowest and more prisoners have engaged in rehabilitation programs.

Solitary confinement has been described as a “prison within a prison.”  Inmates spend twenty-three hours a day inside a cell that is about eighty square feet.  Majority of these cells have only a metal bed, sink, and a toilet.  Food is passed through a slot in the door and inmates are allowed one hour a day to exercise within a cage.

Solitary confinement originated in the 1800s.  In the beginning of the twentieth century, inmates would spend a few days, or in extreme cases, several weeks in solitary.  Today, inmates are can spend years at a time with little to no contact with other human beings.  Across the United States, about 80,000 men, women, and children are currently being held in solitary confinement.

People are placed into solitary confinement for a multitude of reasons.  It has been used for inmates who are caught with a pack of cigarettes or attacking another inmate or officer.  Surprisingly, prisons have used confinement to help manage gangs, isolating people to protect them from harm, or retribution for political activism.

A congressionally mandated audit showed that close to sixty percent of inmates who were put into solitary confinement had serious untreated mental illnesses.

Research shows that solitary confinement has a direct correlation to inmates committing suicide, participating in self-mutilation, and acting out against other inmates and staff within the prisons.  A congressionally mandated audit showed that close to sixty percent of inmates who were put into solitary confinement had serious untreated mental illnesses.  Children and teenagers are more susceptible to psychological and physical harm in solitary confinement because they are still developing.

President Obama announced to the nation that solitary confinement causes “depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior.  Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones.”  Additionally, inmates have developed visual and auditory hallucinations, insomnia and paranoia, distortions of time, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”).

Studies show that more than half of suicides that occur in prisons is because an inmate was locked in some type of seclusion cell.  Even when released from confinement, inmates have a very tough time interacting with the general population.

In 2010, sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack.  His mother was unable to make the $3,000 bail, and therefore, Kalief had to spend his time awaiting trial in jail.  He was locked up on Rikers Island for more than 1,000 days before the charged were dropped.  The majority of these days were spent in solitary confinement.  Kalief never broke any rules while in jail.  He was put into confinement because he endured “unspeakable violence at the hands of inmates and guards.”

Kalief refused to accept any plea bargains that would have allowed him to be released and was adamant that he was innocent.  He tried multiple times to commit suicide while locked up.  Once the charges were dropped in 2013, Kalief went back home to the Bronx and tried to live like a normal, productive citizen.  He completed a successful semester at Bronx Community College.  Unfortunately, Kalief could not relieve himself of the trauma he faced while locked away in Rikers.  On June 6, 2015, Kalief committed suicide by hanging himself with an air-conditioner cord from his window.

Solitary confinement has increasingly been overused on people, such as Kalief, which was one of the reasons President Obama’s administration took steps to address the problem.

 The president has tried to put in place programs to help ex-offenders integrate back into society once released from prison

President Obama’s administration has focused on many changes to fix the “broken” criminal justice in our country.  These changes have become more aggressive especially in places where bias has disproportionately affected minorities.

The president has tried to put in place programs to help ex-offenders integrate back into society once released from prison. Every year, taxpayers “spend about $80 billion to keep 2.2 million people incarcerated.”  There is no argument that some criminals deserve to be behind bars, but there are also non-violent offenders who are serving unnecessarily long sentences.  Members of Congress from both parties have pushed for reforming sentencing laws and implementing programs for reentry into society.

Obama announced at a NAACP convention last year that “mass incarceration of the past two decades had gone too far and left many communities devastated.”  This speech was given the day after the president commuted the sentences of forty-six non-violent prisoners, bringing the total to eighty-nine.  He also stated, “the United States has a far higher incarceration rate than China or Europe and that black and Hispanic men are more likely to be stopped, frisked, questioned, charged, and detained.”

Republicans and Democrats have come together to focus resources on early childhood education to prevent young people from entering into the criminal justice system in the first place, reducing minimum sentences, and pushing for better conditions for prisoners.

Mass incarceration has been proven to disproportionately affect minorities across the nation, and hopefully, banning solitary confinement is another step towards ending this systematic racial bias.

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About Danielle Feller, Associate Editor (16 Articles)
Danielle Feller is a 2016 graduate and served as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer during the 2015-2016 academic year. She is originally from Mooresville, North Carolina and graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a degree in Political Science with a concentration in Law and Justice and a minor in Business Administration. Following her first year of law school, Danielle interned at the Mecklenburg County Public Defender's Office in the Felony Unit. Following her second year of law school, Danielle interned at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Danielle is also worked as Professor Bobbi Jo Boyd's research assistant during her third year of law school.
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