March 01, 2016

President directs changes to solitary confinement policies

President Obama issued a memorandum March 1 directing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to revise its regulations and policies to limit the use of restrictive housing, including solitary confinement, in federal correctional and detention systems throughout the United States.

“A growing body of evidence suggests that the overuse of solitary confinement and other forms of restrictive housing in U.S correctional systems undermines public safety and is contrary to our nation’s values,” the president said. The changes in regulations and policies will implement the recommendations in a recent DOJ report reviewing the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons. The president’s memorandum also directed other executive departments and agencies that impose restrictive housing to review the DOJ report and determine whether corresponding changes should be made at their facilities.

In its report, DOJ concluded that there are occasions when correctional officials have no choice but to segregate inmates from the general population, but the report stated the strong belief that this practice “should be used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints.”  The report emphasized that it is the responsibility of all governments to ensure that restrictive housing is used only as necessary and never as a default solution, but that the impact on correctional staff must be considered as well as the impact on inmates.

“We do not believe that the humane treatment of inmates and the safety of correctional staff are mutually exclusive; indeed, neither is possible without the other,” according to the report, which noted that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has developed a range of progressive alternatives that have reduced the number of inmates in restrictive housing by 25 percent since January 2012.

The report provides 50 guiding principles to serve as a roadmap for correctional systems considering reforms. The principles include that the systems should always be able to clearly articulate the specific reasons, supported by objective evidence, for an inmate’s placement and retention in restrictive housing and that there should be a clear plan for returning the inmate to a less restrictive environment as soon possible. The principles also emphasize that staff should be regularly trained and there should be regular evaluations of existing restrictive housing policies.

The report also recommends that the BOP end of the practice of placing juveniles in restrictive housing and expand the ability to divert inmates with serious mental illness to mental health treatment programs.

The ABA recognizes the negative effects of solitary confinement on prisoners and expressed its concerns during the 113th Congress in a statement submitted for a series of hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

In the statement, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman explained that the core ideal of the ABA Standards for Criminal Justice on the Treatment of Prisoners is that “segregated housing should be the briefest term under the least restrictive conditions practicable and consistent with the rationale for placement and with the progress achieved by the prisoner.”  

A major concern of the ABA is the impact of solitary confinement on juveniles. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry advises that even short periods of isolation too often have serious long-term mental health impact on juveniles, and segregation – while occasionally necessary for safety reasons − should be imposed in the most limited manner,  Susman said.

The ABA statement urged continued investigation on how the use of long-term voluntary confinement may be restricted in ways to promote the safe, efficient and humane operation of prisons.

Responding to the concerns expressed during the hearings, the committee included provisions to limit solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody as part S. 2123, the proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act that was approved by the committee last fall and is pending on the Senate floor.

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