Obama Highlights The Destructive Impact Of Solitary Confinement While Announcing New Rules

President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Okla. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI

President Obama announced Monday night a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile and low-level offenders in federal prisons, saying that isolation is “increasingly overused” and can lead to “devastating, lasting psychological consequences.”

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Obama described the story of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old who was held in solitary confinement for two years as he awaited trial at Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack. Browder killed himself after he was released from jail without charges.

In Browder’s name, Obama announced a series of executive actions addressing solitary confinement, which include expanded treatment for mentally ill inmates and limits on the amount of time offenders can be put in isolation. He noted that the action will affect roughly 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement.

“The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance,” he wrote, adding that the practice should only be “used only as a measure of last resort.”


The announcement is the result of a six-month review by the U.S. Department of Justice, which was tasked with examining “the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons,” according to the White House. The resulting report sets out more than 50 guidelines for all correctional systems to follow, including the requirement that all inmates be housed in the “least restrictive setting necessary” to ensure their own safety and the safety of others.

The rules also include a 60-day limit on the amount of time a prisoner can spend in solitary confinement for a first offense, a sharp reduction from the current maximum of 365 days.

“There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons — including juveniles and people with mental illnesses,” Obama said in his op-ed. “As many as 25,000 inmates are serving months, even years of their sentences alone in a tiny cell, with almost no human contact.”

Solitary is often used not just as punishment but as a way to separate mentally ill or otherwise vulnerable inmates who can’t survive in the general prison population. To address that, the president is also including a request for $24 million in the next fiscal year budget to address mental health concerns in federal prisons. The money will be used to hire more staff psychologists and divert inmates with serious mental illness to alternative forms of housing. The administration also want to build more “reintegration housing units” for inmates who face legitimate threats in prison and need to be in protective custody.

In order to secure that funding, Obama will need to rely on the bipartisan support he’s touted as he pushes criminal justice reform during his remaining time in office. Conservatives have started to join the fight to end solitary confinement on the basis that it constitutes a form of torture and undermines principles of morality and personhood.


According to a report released by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in March 2015, five percent of the federal prison population was housed in a restricted unit as of November 2013. BOP found that individuals held in segregation “have more frequent contact with medical, dental, and mental health service providers, all of whom are often mandated to make daily rounds of segregated housing units.”

And as Obama noted, inmates in solitary confinement suffer from long-lasting psychological and physiological effects, including “visual and auditory hallucinations, hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia and paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear…increased risk of suicide, [and] PTSD.”

Many prisoners sent to isolation already have a history of mental illness, and prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide — especially young people and those with mental illnesses.

States that have already taken measures to limit the use of isolation have seen positive results. As Obama noted, Colorado cut the number of people in isolation, and assaults against staff are the lowest they’ve been since 2006. And in recent weeks, Illinois and Oregon have responded to lawsuits by announcing they will ban seriously mentally ill inmates from solitary confinement.

The president said in his op-ed that he hopes the federal action will “serve as a model for state and local corrections systems.”

“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 wrote. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”