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President Obama Ends Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in Federal Prisons

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on January 26, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, President Barack Obama announced that he would prohibit solitary confinement for juveniles being held in federal prisons. The president pointed to the devastating and lasting psychological consequences of solitary confinement, as well as the need to give offenders a second chance as reasons for the ban.

The measure comes one day after the Supreme Court expanded the prohibition on mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders and amidst larger efforts from both parties in Congress to reform the criminal justice system as a whole, and sentencing and prisons in particular.

No Second Chance

President Obama told the story of Kalief Browder, who served two years in solitary on Rikers Island after being accused of stealing a backpack when he was 16. Browder never even went to trial on the charges, and committed suicide not long after his release. Browder's story is indicative of the adverse psychological effects solitary confinement can have on any prisoner, especially a juvenile:

"The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children."

Reform Efforts

The ban on solitary confinement is just one part of federal prison reform that will affect some 10,000 inmates. The new mandate will also prohibit the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for low-level infractions, expand treatment for mentally ill prisoners, and increase the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells.

President Obama also cited recommendations from a Justice Department investigation into the use of solitary confinement to support the measures in federal prisons, along with positive outcomes in state prison systems that had instituted similar provisions. 

"We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives," the president wrote. "And if we can give them the hope of a better future, and a way to get back on their feet, then we will leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger and worthy of our highest ideals."

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