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Common-Sense Reforms to How America Uses Solitary Confinement

Since he took office, President Obama has demonstrated bold leadership by advancing an agenda for common-sense criminal justice reform, advocating for more fair, more effective and more efficient criminal justice policies.  President Obama’s announcement yesterday that he will adopt the Justice Department’s recommendations to reform the use of restrictive housing – including solitary confinement – in our federal prison system marks a critical, and indeed historic, step of progress.

Since January 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has reduced the total number of inmates in restrictive housing by nearly 25 percent.  And we believe this report provides a policy framework to substantially reduce the BOP’s restrictive housing population even further.  Our central finding – that corrections officials should limit their use of solitary confinement by employing it rarely, fairly and reasonably – stems from a comprehensive and evidence-based review completed by a working group of senior officials from across the Justice Department, including from the Civil Rights Division and the BOP.

Each day, corrections officials face dangerous and complex challenges with no immediate or easy solutions.  In some cases, segregation is important to protect the safety of inmates, staff and the public.  But we must change our approach and view solitary confinement as a last resort to protect public safety rather than a first response to inflict punishment.  Our report establishes more than 50 “Guiding Principles,” or best practices, designed to serve as a roadmap for reform as correctional systems across the country confront this issue.

Building on these principles, we also outline a series of detailed policy recommendations for the federal system to translate this approach into action, particularly in the BOP.  These recommendations, which President Obama has adopted in their entirety, include ending solitary confinement for juveniles; diverting inmates with serious mental illness to secure mental health units in each BOP region and hiring psychologists to work in each Special Housing Unit (SHU); limiting the use of disciplinary segregation and making across-the-board reductions in maximum penalties; building special-purpose units for inmates in need of protective custody, so they do not end up in restrictive housing; directing wardens to expand out-of-cell time; discouraging the placement of inmates in any form of restrictive housing during the final 180 days of their prison terms; posting monthly data on the use of restrictive housing on the BOP website; and much more.

In the Civil Rights Division, we combat the abuse of restrictive housing through our enforcement of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), which authorizes us to investigate state and local jails and prisons to determine whether they engage in a pattern or practice of violating the rights of prisoners.  In recent years, we have focused on the particular harms caused by the use of restrictive housing for vulnerable populations, including prisoners with serious mental illness and juveniles.  We have had cases examining restrictive housing in jurisdictions across multiples states and territories, including in California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and the Virgin Islands.

In 2013 we found that a Pennsylvania state prison, SCI Cresson, used long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness, many of whom also have intellectual disabilities, in violation of both the Eighth Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Following our findings at SCI Cresson, we expanded our investigation statewide and found prisoners across Pennsylvania with serious mental illness enduring prolonged solitary confinement under harsh conditions that caused serious harm, including severe mental deterioration, psychosis and acts of self-harm.  More than 70 percent of documented suicide attempts over a 17-month period occurred in the system’s solitary confinement units.

In another important case, in 2007 a Justice Department investigation uncovered juvenile correctional institutions in Ohio falling painfully short of their legal responsibilities to support the safety, health and educational needs of detained children.  A youth correctional facility in the City of Delaware, Ohio, held youth in seclusion for actions as mundane as refusing breakfast, cursing and talking in class.  Following a settlement agreement we reached with the State of Ohio to ensure systemic reform and protect children, Ohio has achieved noteworthy changes in its juvenile corrections system and policies.  These transformative reforms to juvenile correctional facilities – including eliminating the use of solitary confinement for punishment and ensuring individualized mental health care – led us to terminate our consent decree last year and close the case.

The lessons we have learned about restrictive housing – shaped in part by the injustices we exposed in Pennsylvania and Ohio – demonstrate the urgent need for a fundamental shift in how we use and apply solitary confinement.  President Obama’s strong stance, clear direction and firm leadership this week give me great optimism in our ability to continue driving that change in the days and months ahead.

Updated March 3, 2017