President Obama bans solitary confinement for juveniles

Juvenile Justice

Security officer posing with teenagers

President Barack Obama set a strong example for states last week when he banned federal prisons from placing juvenile offenders in solitary confinement. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, President Obama invoked the story of the late Kalief Browder to highlight how harmful solitary confinement is for youth. Browder spent nearly two years in solitary confinement at Rikers Island for a crime he insists he did not commit. Though his case was later dropped, he never recovered from the trauma of solitary confinement and committed suicide at the age of 22.

Currently, there are 100,000 people held in solitary confinements, including juveniles. For nearly a full day, prisoners are cramped inside of a cell that is smaller than a horse stable. Often, they languish in their 80 square foot cell for months or even years with little human contact. The harmful, long-lasting psychological effects of solitary confinement are well documented. Stays in solitary confinement can cause a prisoner to experience depression, visual and auditory hallucinations, and post traumatic stress disorder. It increases their potential for violent behavior and reduces their ability to interact with each other. And most alarmingly, prisoners in solitary confinement are more likely to commit suicide.

Our nation was founded on the idea that second chance society is the ideal society. But solitary confinement robs young people of the opportunity to get onto their feet after serving time for their crime. They leave more broken than they were when they entered prison, with new or exacerbated mental illnesses. We should be investing in children, not investing in practices that rob them of their potential.

Several states have recognized the need to eliminate or reduce solitary confinement, and seen positive results. Colorado has put fewer people into solitary confinement and has reported that assaults against staff have dropped to record lows. After implementing comprehensive reforms in the use of solitary confinement, New Mexico has seen more prisoners taking part in rehabilitation programs.

We applaud President Obama for his efforts to reform the criminal justice system, and are hopeful that more states will follow his lead.

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