Earlier this week, President Barack Obama expressed his views on solitary confinement in an op-ed piece published by The Washington Post. Solitary confinement is the isolation of an inmate, and is often used as a form of punishment against prisoners. The confined are alone and spend their time without any human contact, unless it’s with prison staff. Prisoners are confined if they are considered a danger to themselves (or to others), are suspected of participating or organizing in illegal activity outside the prison, or if he or she is at risk of being harmed by other inmates. The last situation is intended to be a form of protective custody.
In prisons across the country, there are as many as 100,000 individuals being held in solitary confinement. Some of these prisoners are juveniles or battle mental illness. Solitary confinement is used for disciplinary purposes, but often leads to traumatizing and psychological consequences. Solitary confinement can lead to depression, alienation, withdrawal, and a decrease in social skills. It can also create the potential for violent behavior. If a prisoner with a preexisting mental illness is confined, it can worsen his mental health or even spark new ones. Confined prisoners are also more likely to commit suicide, especially those with mental illness.
In the summer of 2015, the President had Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and the Justice Department review the use of solitary confinement in prisons all over the country. After completing the review, the President used the Justice Department’s recommendations as the “guiding principles” for prison reform. These principles include a ban of the use of solitary confinement on juveniles, or as a response to low-level infractions. President Obama also recommended expanding treatment for the mentally ill, and increasing the amount of time confined prisoners can spend outside of their cells. These principles will affect nearly 10,000 federal prisoners currently in solitary confinement. He also hopes these guiding principles will influence change in state and local prisons.
There are a few states who are leading the charge in this reform. The number of prisoners held in solitary confinement in Colorado has decreased and as a result, assaults against the staff have dropped to a level that hasn’t been seen since 2006. An initiative in New Mexico has implemented changes that created a decrease in the number of inmate confined, and a rise in prisoners participating in rehabilitation programs. Federal prisons have seen results similar to those in Colorado after decreasing the use of solitary confinement 25%. These positive changes may be the first steps at rehabilitating our prison system, and our society at large.