President Obama Tackles the Overuse of Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons

On January 22, 2009, just two days after he was inaugurated, President Obama issued Executive Order 13491 – basically ending the torture policies that had been incorporated by the Bush/Cheney administration. The specifics of that executive order were eventually written into the the United States Army Field Manual on interrogation.

At the time, a lot of reporters and activists pointed out that these updated policies continued to endorse practices that were at minimum abusive and could amount to torture.

Labeled Appendix M, and propounding an additional, special “technique” called “Separation”, human rights and legal group have recognized that Appendix M includes numerous abusive techniques, including use of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation.

What always struck me is that those practices were not reserved for detainees identified as “terrorists.” They were common practice used by law enforcement and prisons all over the country. In order to classify them as abusive and/or torture in places like Guantanamo, it would be necessary to also do so in places like Rikers Island.

President Obama has taken an initial step in the process of doing just that. Last summer, the President directed Attorney General Lynch to review “the overuse of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons.” You can read the executive summary of the report and recommendations here. And yesterday, the President responded with this:

The Justice Department has completed its review, and I am adopting its recommendations to reform the federal prison system. These include banning solitary confinement for juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells. These steps will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement — and hopefully serve as a model for state and local corrections systems. And I will direct all relevant federal agencies to review these principles and report back to me with a plan to address their use of solitary confinement.

Beyond these specifics, President Obama is injecting an idea back into our criminal justice system that was lost along the way in our short-sighted efforts to “get tough on crime.”

In America, we believe in redemption. We believe, in the words of Pope Francis, that “every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.” 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.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.