President Obama said Monday that he was banning solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, an announcement he made in an op-ed published in The Washington Post. In laying out his decision, Obama began by outlining the story of Kalief Browder, a young man who spent a significant portion of his short life in jail.
Most of Browder’s time behind bars was spent in solitary confinement. Browder had never been convicted of a crime, but he was accused of robbing someone, and that was enough for him to spend three of his years at Rikers Island in New York.
His story was told by Jennifer Gonnerman in a 2014 article in the New Yorker outlining Browder’s journey through a frayed criminal justice system. Browder described long stretches of isolation in solitary confinement, and he told her he was abused by inmates and corrections officers inside Rikers. Gonnerman later obtained and published footage capturing such violence.
“Being home is way better than being in jail,” Browder told Gonnerman after he was released. “But in my mind right now I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.”
Last June, Gonnerman wrote another story about him, this one published the day after Browder committed suicide. Browder’s family left no doubt about why they believe Browder took his own life.
“After fighting so hard to get out of jail — and then fighting on the outside to restart his life — he ultimately was unable to overcome his own pain and torment which emanated from his experiences in solitary confinement,” Browder’s family said in a statement at the time.
Solitary confinement is also known by other names — including isolation, punitive segregation, restricted housing — but the basic idea is generally the same: An inmate is removed from the larger inmate population for some period of time. Each year, tens of thousands of people are placed in solitary confinement, many of them placed in small, narrow rooms for long stretches.
This can be used as a temporary measure to protect that inmate, other inmates or prison employees, or as a punishment for some sort of infraction. Some inmates are isolated for violent actions or threats, but experts say many people are also sent to solitary for doing things like talking back. Regardless of the cause, the forced segregation takes someone who is already imprisoned and removes almost any human contact or interaction from their life.
The effects of solitary are hard to overstate. Experts say it can have catastrophic psychological effects, particularly on younger people or those with mental health issues. “The level of suffering and despair in many of these [solitary confinement] units is palpable and profound,” Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz who has studied the impact of incarceration, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2012.
The emptiness and idleness that pervade most solitary confinement units are profound and enveloping. The prison typically provides the prisoners in these units with literally nothing meaningful to do. That emptiness, when combined with the total lack of meaningful social contact, has led some prisoners into a profound level of what might be called “ontological insecurity”—they are not sure that they exist and, if they do, exactly who they are.
For people who spend long stretches in solitary, possible consequences include depression, anxiety and psychosis, and juveniles “are at particular risk” because of where they are in their development, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. It is a brutal reality for any mind, let alone one that is still taking shape. A national survey commissioned by the Justice Department that looked at suicides in juvenile facilities reported in 2004 that half of these people had been confined to their rooms when they took their lives, while 62 percent of them had a history of such confinement.
Yet despite solitary confinement’s dramatic impact on prisoners, we do not actually know how commonly it is used. To be more precise: Nobody knows exactly how many people are in solitary right now, as you are reading these words.
According to Solitary Watch, a media and advocacy project, this lack of clarity is partly a result of gaps in how the data is gathered, as there is no thorough national reporting system.
Still, some numbers do exist. The Vera Institute for Justice estimates that more than 80,000 people are isolated in state and federal prisons on any given day — roughly equal to the population of Merced, Calif. The number could be as high as 100,000 people, according to a 2014 report from Yale Law School that Obama cited in his op-ed. But the Vera Institute notes that this number is likely lowballing the real figure because it does not include jails, military facilities, juvenile facilities or immigration detention centers.
Solitary was not a rare experience for young people held in Rikers during Browder’s time there. In 2013, the last year Browder was held in Rikers, there were more than 680 inmates between the ages of 16 and 18 in Rikers on an average day. And on any given day, up to a quarter of them could have been in some form of solitary, according to an investigation into Rikers by the office of Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
Bharara’s sharply critical report, which focused on the years Browder was held there, determined that “a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers.” Young inmates told investigators about numerous cases of brutal assaults by corrections officers, and these episodes were not properly reported or investigated, the report found.
Browder told Gonnerman that he attempted suicide multiple times while in isolation. The report from Bharara noted “a number of comments from uniformed staff about inmates using suicide attempts to manipulate the officers and that the attempts therefore did not need to be taken seriously.”
Rikers Island is where most of the inmates in New York City’s jail system are held. It has come under fire for a great many things recently, including the mistreatment of mentally ill inmates, skewed numbers about inmate fights, guards who smuggle contraband and other gaps in security. Last year, undercover investigators were able to smuggle $22,000 worth of drugs and alcohol into Rikers.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced multiple reforms aimed at improving the situation at Rikers, several of which target problems highlighted by Browder’s situation. De Blasio declared initiatives to reduce violence at Rikers, end isolation for juvenile inmates and speed up the city’s court system while clearing backlogs of cases.
In January of last year, officials in New York City agreed to stop placing most inmates age 21 and younger in solitary. New York also said it would curtail how long an inmate can be sentenced to isolation, while inmates with serious mental illnesses or physical disabilities cannot be isolated. In December, New York state also agreed to an overhaul, announcing changes that would limit how much time inmates can spend in solitary.
“And a lot of the changes we are making at Rikers Island right now are the result of the example of Kalief Browder,” de Blasio, a Democrat, said last year. “So I wish – I deeply wish we hadn’t lost him, but he did not die in vain.”
These changes, like the ones announced by Obama, are not occurring in a vacuum, as states across the country have moved recently to change how they approach isolating their most vulnerable inmates. Some other prison systems in the United States have begun to reform and, in some cases, end solitary confinement for mentally ill and young inmates.
Pennsylvania, like New York, is home to one of the largest prison populations in the country. The state said last year that it would stop placing inmates with serious mental illnesses in solitary. In 2014, 10 states adopted more than a dozen measures meant to limit the use of solitary, ban it for younger inmates or improve conditions, the Marshall Project reported. Some states have limited the amount of time juveniles can be placed in solitary, while others have said that inmates with serious mental health issues must be able to spend more time outside their cells.
The changes Obama is making also include expanding the mental health units for federal inmates deemed unable to remain in the larger prison population, banning solitary as a punishment for smaller infractions and removing some of the mystery regarding how many inmates are being held in solitary. He is ordering the federal prison system to publish monthly data on inmates in solitary.
In his op-ed, Obama that solitary confinement could be necessary at times. But he described it as “a measure of last resort,” decrying the idea of using it when it is not neeeded.
“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” Obama wrote. “It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”
This post was published Monday night and has been updated Tuesday morning with additional information about the changes Obama is making.