October 01, 2016

Bill would reform use of solitary confinement

Citing the damaging effects of solitary confinement, Sens. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) introduced legislation Sept. 28 that would make significant reforms in the use of the practice in federal prisons and encourage states to implement similar changes.

The bill, S. 3432, builds on a memorandum issued in January by President Obama that directed the Department of Justice (DOJ) to implement recommendations from a DOJ report supporting steps to reduce the use of solitary confinement as well as ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. The bill would ensure that inmates are placed in solitary confinement only when absolutely necessary and would improve the conditions of confinement and establish firm time limits on segregation. It also includes strict limits on the use of solitary confinement for: those nearing their release dates; those in protective custody; LGBT inmates; and inmates who are minors, have serious mental illness, have an intellectual or physical disability, or are pregnant or in the first eight weeks of postpartum recovery after birth.

The bill also would improve access to mental health care for those in segregated housing and establish a civil rights ombudsman within the Bureau of Prisons to review inmate complaints and to submit an annual assessment of solitary confinement policies, regulations and data. In addition, a National Resource Center on Solitary Confinement Reform would be established to provide resources to state and local jurisdictions working to reduce the use of solitary confinement.

Durbin said he began his efforts to address the problems associated with solitary confinement by holding the first-ever hearing on the issue in 2012 when he chaired the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. He followed up two years later with a series of hearings during the 113th Congress. The ABA, which recognizes the negative effects of solitary confinement on prisoners, expressed its concerns in statements submitted for the record of hearings in both 2012 and 2014.

In the statements, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman emphasized the negative effects of solitary confinement on prisoners and emphasized that the impact on juveniles is especially pronounced. He talked about the immense costs to the public, the prisoners, and the communities to which the vast majority of once-isolated prisoners will return, adding that some data suggest that prisoners who have spent long periods in isolation are more like to reoffend and have a more difficult time creating lasting social bonds that are necessary to reintegrate into their communities.

The ABA Standards for Criminal Justice on the Treatment of Prisoners, updated in 2010, contain specific guidance on the use of prolonged isolation and apply to all prisoners in adult facilities, including jails.

Addressing the major impact of solitary confinement on juveniles, Susman explained that 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.

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