It took seven years and six days, but President Obama has finally picked up his pen and enacted a series of executive orders designed to begin overhauling the criminal justice system.
On Monday, the president announced a full-scale ban on solitary confinement for juveniles serving time in federal prisons. The longest any prisoner can be punished is 60 days for a first offense and the practice can no longer be used to discipline inmates for “low-level infractions.” Historically, solitary confinement has been abused, with some inmates serving decades on lock-down in a security housing unit, or SHU.
“The Hole,” as such cellblocks are commonly known, can have devastating psychological effects. Human-rights activists, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have long said the disciplinary action is overused.
In a Washington Post opinion column Monday— titled “We Must Rethink Solitary Confinement,” Obama pointed to the case of Kalief Browder—a 16-year-old who spent nearly two years alone in a jail cell for as much as 23 hours a day at New York City’s notorious Rikers Island facility. Kalief, accused of stealing a backpack and unable to post bail, was never given a trial and reportedly endured “unspeakable violence at the hands of inmates and guards.”
Kalief became a national symbol for all that is wrong with America’s criminal justice system—overpolicing in non-white communities, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipelines, and an inadequate supply of public defenders. Kalief never stood a chance. He was 22 years old the day he killed himself. His mother found him hanging this past June from a rope he’d pitched out of a window.
Perhaps the most egregious case is the Angola Three. In 1972, inmates Robert King, Albert Woodfox, and Herman Wallace were accused of murdering a prison guard in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. King spent 29 years in “the hole” before his conviction was overturned. After hearing the Woodfox case, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, too. Wallace, who was in the special housing unit for more than 40 years before his release in 2015, died of liver cancer three days after he was set free.
“There are as many as 100,000 people held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons—including juveniles and people with mental illnesses,” the president wrote. “As many as 25,000 inmates are serving months, even years of their sentences, alone in a tiny cell, with almost no human contact.”
He went on to explain the links to “depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others, and the potential for violent behavior,” writing that “Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones.”
Prisoners held in segregated housing units are more likely to commit suicide—especially juveniles like Kalief Browder and others with mental illnesses, who are poorly equipped to deal with the adult penal system or belong in health-care facilities.
Before the Obama overhaul, no federal inmate could placed in solitary confinement for longer than 365 days for a first offense. The good news is approximately 10,000 men and women will now be released from the segregated units—including a handful of juveniles and nearly 4,000 adults who were locked down for nonviolent offenses.
There remains work to be done. Some states have taken action in recent years, but the executive actions do not apply to state-run correctional facilities. While inmates at federal prison camps will see a reprieve, those locked up at the state level may continue to be subjected to this inhumane treatment and as a society we are no better for it. The fact is prisoners held in solitary confinement are most likely to commit new crimes upon release from prison.
The president’s pen cannot solve that. His actions would not have saved Kalief Browder’s life. Kalief left Rikers without his very soul. We took that from him. We built a system designed to tear down rather than rebuild. That makes us all culpable.
President Obama has 359 days left in the Oval Office. That’s 359 days left to continue looking for ways to make us a better nation, one uses the power of his pen to invest in other reforms.
If, as he wrote, “we are to leave our children with a country that is safer, stronger, and worthy of our highest ideals,” we must commit to protecting all of them—even those in the criminal justice system.