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President’s Order on Solitary Confinement Reverberates Beyond Youth Incarceration

Despite their limited effects on juveniles, new federal guidelines on solitary signal broad policy shifts for adult prisoners.

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“Obama Bans Solitary for Juveniles,” blared yesterday’s headlines. But as usual, the mainstream press missed the real story.

President Obama did issue an executive order banning solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system, and journalists can’t really be blamed for missing the real story, as Obama wrote an op-ed, which led with the story of 16-year-old Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after being held in solitary at Rikers Island prison in New York City. However, the fact is, according to the US Department of Justice, there are just 45 juveniles housed in federal prisons, only 13 of whom are in solitary. Ironically, the federal government does have jurisdiction over thousands of children, many of whom are held in isolation, but they are held in immigration detention centers, which appear to be excluded from this executive order.

However, the order does have implications that reach beyond its immediate effects. There are over 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, and between 80,000 and 100,000 of them are in solitary. What does the president’s action mean for them? Actually, quite a bit, because the president’s orders go far beyond banning solitary for juveniles and dramatically change solitary for adult prisoners held in the federal system.

If the federal guidelines were adopted nationwide, the number of people kept in extreme isolation would drop dramatically.

Solitary is a prison within a prison. Just as society uses prisons to disappear social problems rather than solve them, the prison system uses solitary to disappear its problems. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the history of the world, and it holds more people in solitary than any other country in the world. The extreme isolation of prisoners is called different things – disciplinary segregation or “seg,” administrative detention or “A.D.,” solitary confinement – but it always involves removing prisoners from the general prison population and locking them in small cells for longer than 22 hours a day. Sometimes they are imprisoned with cellmates, sometimes completely alone.

But regardless of the label or the details, the prisoners are always deprived of meaningful social contact. Humans are social animals. Depriving us of all meaningful social contact causes damage to our brains, including physical changes that may even be permanent. Uptown People’s Law Center, where I work, has been fighting solitary in Illinois prisons for over 30 years, and there is a growing movement nationwide to challenge solitary, led by the hunger strikes organized by prisoners in California.

In my line of work, I’ve met a number of people who have experienced, or are experiencing, solitary confinement. I saw one man who developed bedsores because his mental illness was only “treated” by isolation and involuntary injections of the sedating antipsychotic drug Haldol, so he just stayed in bed inside his 5-foot-by-10-foot box 24 hours a day, for years. Many people who didn’t have a mental illness develop one after extended time in solitary, are unable to work when released from prison and must collect Social Security disability income.

The president’s executive order is good news for those of us fighting this horror. For the first time in history, a US president is paying attention to this issue. The Department of Justice’s new policies govern use of solitary across the federal system, and its newly issued guidelines are intended to set a standard to be followed in state prisons and county jails. It is these policies and guidelines that are the real news.

The Justice Department introduced its new guidelines with this statement:

After extensive study, we have concluded that there are occasions when correctional officials have no choice but to segregate inmates from the general population, typically when it is the only way to ensure the safety of inmates, staff, and the public. But as a matter of policy, we believe strongly this practice should be used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints.

These general guidelines were supported with specific policies applicable to all prisons operated by the US government, including federal prisons as well as facilities with which the US Marshalls Service contracts to house prisoners (typically, county jails). These guidelines discourage putting prisoners living with serious mental illness, pregnant or postpartum prisoners, or juveniles in solitary. They restrict the length of time people can be held in solitary and bar solitary all together for minor rule violations. Those left in solitary must be given significant out-of-cell time, including recreation, education and opportunities to interact with other prisoners and staff.

The federal government led the way to this current excessive use of solitary: It turned Marion prison in Illinois into a place where prisoners were locked in their cells virtually 24 hours a day, and it built one of the first high-tech supermax prisons in Florence, Colorado – designed from the ground up to completely isolate people. But now, the US government is leading the way to reducing solitary. If the federal guidelines were adopted nationwide, the number of people kept in extreme isolation would drop dramatically, and the conditions for those left in solitary would be significantly improved.

However, this is only the beginning: A recent story out of Florida shows how far we still have to go. Darren Rainey, a prisoner who had heart disease and severe schizophrenia, was locked in a shower where the guards set the water to scalding. Rainey was left locked inside, screaming for help, for two hours, until he was dead. His death was ruled an accident.

Until we recognize that prisoners are human beings, and commit to treating them as we would like to be treated, the basic cruelty and violence of the criminal legal system – including the abusive use of solitary – will not end.

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