Obama bans solitary confinement for federal juvenile inmates

President Obama said Monday he will ban solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system and reduce the practice for certain other inmates.

In a Washington Post op-ed, the president said solitary confinement is too prevalent in the nation's criminal justice system and is linked with mental trauma that makes it difficult for prisoners to rehabilitate. 

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"The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance," Obama wrote.

"How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?" he continued. "It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity."

Obama said he would take a number of other executive actions, including banning the use of confinement as a punishment for inmates "who commit low-level infractions." 

The president is also directing federal wardens to expand out-of-cell time for all inmates and ensure those in protective custody are housed in "less restrictive conditions."

Taken together, the moves could affect about 10,000 federal prisoners. 

Obama's announcement is the culmination of a Justice Department review launched last July to study the effects of solitary confinement in the federal prison system.  

It comes amid a broader push by the president to pass an overhaul of the criminal-justice system through Congress this year. Obama, the first black president, has faced criticism during his seven years in office that he has not done enough to address the plight of African-Americans, who are disproportionately put behind bars. 

The criminal-justice reforms would go a long way in addressing those concerns. The effort has attracted an unlikely bipartisan coalition of supporters and eliminating solitary confinement is a top goal for prison-reform advocates.  

But some Republicans are working to sink the legislation, arguing it would pose a danger to cities and communities across the country. 

The centerpiece of the effort is a measure to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. But a group of Democratic and Republican senators introduced a bill last summer that would ban solitary confinement for minors held in pre-trial or detention facilities.  

Jasmine Heiss, a senior campaigner with Amnesty International USA, said the Justice Department's recommendations "represent a momentous break with this shameful legacy, and an acknowledgement that tens of thousands of human beings should not be condemned to live in a cage." 

"The federal government’s clear commitment to reform should be a call to action across the country for truly national reform of solitary confinement," she said in a statement.  

Around a dozen states have adopted similar bans, and the president said he hopes his moves encourage more states and municipalities to do the same. He noted that several studies have shown that solitary confinement can worsen existing mental illnesses in inmates or trigger new ones.  

He highlighted the story of Kalief Browder, 22, a Bronx man who killed himself last year after spending three years behind bars at New York's Rikers Island jail, two of which he was held in solitary.  

"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."

Updated at 9:17 p.m.