Washington: President Barack Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons on Monday, citing the “heartbreaking” case of a teenager who spent two years in solitary after stealing a backpack and later killed himself.
Obama, who is pushing to reform America’s overcrowded and expensive correctional system before the end of his presidency, wants to cut the number of people incarcerated in prisons, curb use of solitary confinement in general and end mandatory minimum sentences.
Writing in an op-ed that was to appear in The Washington Post today, the president said placing juvenile prisoners in solitary confinement is used too much and can have terrible psychological effects.
He announced a series of executive actions that also ban corrections officials from dumping prisoners responsible for “low-level infractions” in solitary. The president’s reforms were expected to affect about 10,000 inmates and he said he hoped they would serve as a model for US states to rethink their rules. “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” the president wrote.
“It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.” Obama begins his opinion piece titled “Why we must rethink solitary confinement” by detailing the case of Kalief Browder, who in 2010, aged 16, was accused of stealing a backpack and was sent off to the notorious Rikers Island prison complex in New York to await trial.
“He reportedly endured unspeakable violence at the hands of inmates and guards and spent nearly two years in solitary confinement,” Obama wrote. Browder was released in 2013 having never stood trial but struggled to cope from the trauma of being locked up all alone for 23 hours each day and killed himself at the age of 22.
“Solitary confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s and the rationale for its use has varied over time,” Obama wrote. “Today, it’s increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results which is why my administration is taking steps to address this problem.”
According to Obama, as many as 100,000 people are held in solitary confinement in US prisons, including juveniles and the mentally ill. Obama made his announcement after the Justice Department completed a review of the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.
Nearly a quarter of the world’s prison population is concentrated in American jails. However, the United States accounts for less than five percent of the world’s population. Black and Latino Americans represent 60 per cent of the prison population while around 30 per cent of prisoners are white.