WASHINGTON — A new ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prison could bring momentum to reform efforts on the state level.
President Obama announced the ban and other prison reforms Monday, saying in an op-ed that he hoped the policies would be a model for state and local corrections systems.
“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,” Obama wrote in The Washington Post.
Jenny Lutz, a staff attorney at the Center for Children’s Law and Policy, which is helping to organize a national campaign against youth solitary, said it was thrilling to see the president make a case for ending solitary based on both treating individual prisoners humanely and on making communities safer.
It’s rare to see conditions of confinement addressed at the national level, she said, and the president’s position could help propel action at the local and state level.
“Hopefully it will be a springboard for people in states who want to be active and weren’t really sure there was a climate for it,” Lutz said.
The president’s announcement also could encourage lawmakers to act in states where solitary for youth is at the top of reformers’ agendas.
“I think this extra push from the Obama administration is just what this movement needs,” said Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
In California, children’s advocates have been pushing a bill for several years that would strictly limit the use of solitary confinement for children, and the legislation was recently reintroduced.
Alex Johnson, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-California, said the administration’s example will be a powerful one as the bill works its way through the state legislature.
“If you can do it in the federal system, you can certainly do it in county and state government. It really serves to keep the issue in the forefront of people’s minds,” he said. “When the president comes out as boldly and passionately as he did, it resonates.”
In Nebraska, lawmakers could consider a bipartisan bill this spring that would require clearer rules and data collection on solitary confinement for youth. Advocates are optimistic the bill will advance quickly out of committee, which reacted positively earlier this month.
Amy Miller, legal director for the ACLU of Nebraska, says the federal ban could help advocates make the case to lawmakers that there’s widespread concern, and action, about solitary.
The administration’s positions show that “from the top all the way down there is consensus that this is an incredibly harmful practice,” she said.
The president also announced a ban on solitary as a punishment for low-level infractions, an increase in the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells and expanded treatment for the mentally ill.
In recent years, there has been growing concern about solitary confinement for juveniles. Researchers have found the practice can cause psychological and physical harm, especially among children and teenagers who are still developing. Some states have moved aggressively to limit the use of solitary for youth.
The policy changes announced Monday grew out of Justice Department review of the use of solitary confinement in the United States and a series of recommended reforms that Obama adopted.
There are times when solitary is necessary — particularly to protect inmate, staff and public safety — but the practice “should be used rarely, applied fairly and subjected to reasonable restraints,” the DOJ wrote in the report.
Few juveniles are in federal custody. As of Dec. 5, the Bureau of Prisons was responsible for 71 juveniles: 45 who were incarcerated and 26 under the supervision by the U.S. Probation Office.
The Bureau was notified of 13 juveniles who were placed in some form of “restrictive housing” at its contract facilities from Sept. 1, 2014 to Sept. 25, 2015, according to the report.
Laura Markle Downton, director of the U.S. Prisons Policy and Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said it’s a major step to see DOJ acknowledge how solitary is being used in federal prison, let alone to implement new policies.
“We’re not all the way there, we’ve got a long road ahead, but to see this clear acknowledgement from the Department of Justice that this practice and that this issue needs to be confronted is huge,” she said.
As reforms roll out at both the state and federal levels, there still will be work to do, Fettig said.
“The advocacy community and public need to remain vigilant to make sure these reforms translate on the ground,” she said.