Putting an end to solitary confinement

Amidst growing momentum for criminal justice reform and new approaches to reducing recidivism, it is promising to see a new focus on rehabilitation rather than excessive (and counter-productive) punishment. President Obama’s executive actions to ban solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system are a great step forward.

The reforms will also prohibit federal corrections officials from punishing prisoners who commit “low-level infractions” with solitary confinement. Furthermore, the maximum time a prisoner can be punished with solitary confinement for a first offense will be 60 days, a reduction from the current 365 days.

“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” President Obama wrote in The Washington Post. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”

Nearly 100,000 people are estimated to be held in some form of solitary confinement in US prisons. Many thousands of these have spent months and even years without human contact, confined to tiny cells for up to 23 hours a day. Solitary confinement has been linked to higher suicide rates, depression, psychosis, potential for violent behaviour and withdrawal from society when prisoners are eventually released.

Shaka Senghor, who spent seven years in solitary confinement, and Dream Corps Founder Van Jones, both spoke eloquently on the issue in the aftermath of President Obama’s announcement. Watch their videos above and below.

Shaka and Van co-founded #cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to safely and smartly reduce the US incarcerated population by 50 per cent over the next 10 years. As they point out, the US has five per cent of the world’s population, and 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated population. More than two million people are in prison in the US, which is nearly one out of every 110 Americans, many for non-violent drug offences.  

I hope these latest reforms at the federal level will be used as a model for states to carry out their own reform. The tide of public opinion is turning, and a dozen states have made moves to cut the use of solitary confinement in the past two years. As President Obama said: “We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives. 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.”

Let’s remember that a prison sentence is punishment enough. Breaking people’s spirits and ruining their health through solitary confinement doesn’t serve any purpose. Society must do better than that. 

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