WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Jan. 25 authored an op-ed in The Washington Post decrying the use of solitary confinement for detained youth, calling the practice “an affront to our common humanity.” The piece outlined the president’s plans to ban solitary confinement for juveniles and low-level offenders in the nation’s federal prisons.
President Obama wrote that solitary confinement is increasingly used on youth, often with “heartbreaking” results. He cited a 2014 national survey published by The Liman Program, Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators that show as many as 100,000 people are being held in solitary confinement throughout the country, among them juveniles and those with mental illnesses. These stays in solitary can sometimes stretch into months and years with minimal human contact. The President also pointed to research that suggests such conditions can directly contribute to severe, long-term psychological issues including depression, reduced social skills and increased tendencies toward violent behavior or suicide.
“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.”
In the summer of 2015, President Obama directed the Justice Department and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to review what he calls the overuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Those efforts found instances in which the practice was deemed a necessary tool for ensuring staff or inmate safety, but that it should be “limited, applied with constraints and use only as a measure of last resort.” Further review recommendations included an outright ban on solitary confinement for juveniles, expanding mental health treatment and increasing time spent outside the cell for those in solitary confinement.
Nearing the end of his final term, President Obama has become increasingly vocal in his efforts to reform sentencing and improve conditions in federal prisons. In July 2015 he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison, and his piece also touted efforts in Colorado and New Mexico to reduce solitary confinement numbers and increase rehabilitation programs.