In a powerful op-ed for the Washington Post, President Obama announced he was banning the practice of solitary confinement for juveniles and non-violent offenders in federal prison.
The president cited Kalief Browder, a New York man arrested in 2010 when he was just 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder spent nearly three years in the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail before the charges were dropped and he was released in 2013. Though he struggled to put his life back together, the time Browder spent in solitary confinement haunted him. Last year, he took his own life; he was just 22 years old.
“Solitary confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s, and the rationale for its use has varied over time. 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,” President Obama wrote.
The president continued:
Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to 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. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.
The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. 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 president, my most important job is to keep the American people safe. And since I took office, overall crime rates have decreased by more than 15 percent. In our criminal justice system, the punishment should fit the crime — and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society. How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.
According to President Obama, the decision to end solitary confinement for juveniles and non-violent offenders will affect around 10,000 federal inmates “and [will] hopefully serve as a model for state and local corrections systems.” It’s also yet another way he’s pushing to reform the criminal justice system.