How Associations Shaped White House Recommendations on Solitary Confinement

In recent months two major correctional associations have spoken out against the aggressive use of solitary confinement in prisons. The Obama administration's updated guidelines for federal prisons appear to have kept these considerations in mind.

The Obama administration’s move to limit the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons came about, in part, thanks to the work of two associations.

In recent months, the American Correctional Association (ACA) and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) have come out against the prevalent use of solitary confinement for juvenile and nonviolent offenders, with both groups arguing that there are better ways to correct inmates’ behavior.

“The punishment that we give to Americans is deprivation of their liberty, but it doesn’t mean that we try to punish them more while their liberty is deprived,” ACA Executive Director James Gondles said in an Associated Press interview earlier this month.

And last September, ASCA released the findings of a survey—the first of its kind in more than a decade—that examined the prevalence of solitary confinement and its effects on prisoners and staff.

In announcing its new standards this week, the White House said it based its updated recommendations on best practices advocated by the two associations. These practices include placing inmates in the least restrictive setting necessary; informing inmates of why they’re being placed in restrictive housing; having correctional staff create a plan to return inmates to less restrictive quarters; forming a panel of staff, representing the medical and mental-health professions as well as prison management, to continually monitor the cases of inmates who are in restrictive housing; and routinely training correctional staff on restrictive-housing policies.

President Obama also has banned the use of solitary confinement for juvenile offenders and for those convicted of low-level infractions.

Explaining his plan in a Washington Post op-ed, the president said the consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are often more damaging than other forms of imprisonment.

“Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others, and the potential for violent behavior,” the president wrote. “Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones. Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.”

Politico noted that the rules affecting juvenile inmates—which would apply to only around 26 federal prisoners—were likely put in place as an example for state and local correctional facilities, which hold roughly 90 percent of the country’s inmates.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch, speaking Tuesday at ACA’s annual meeting in New Orleans, noted the benefits to the federal prison system of reducing the use of solitary confinement.

“Since January 2012, the federal Bureau of Prisons— under the outstanding leadership of former Director Charles Samuels—has cut its restrictive-housing population by 25 percent while achieving significant reductions in staff assaults at the same time,” Lynch said, according to her prepared remarks. “This only serves to underscore that we can change our practices without compromising a bedrock principle of corrections: that the safety of our officers and our inmates comes first.”

(Ash Carter/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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