When President Obama in January announced plans to limit federal prisons’ use of solitary confinement—a practice a UN expert described as “torture” and “cruel”—human rights activists applauded.
Those activists were still skeptical, however, that such a measure would reach far enough to enact meaningful change, as the vast majority of solitary confinement happens in state-level prisons. A total of about 90,000 people are imprisoned in solitary in state prisons, compared to about 10,000 incarcerated in segregated cells in federal facilities. (The nationwide total of approximately 100,000 people in solitary confinement surpasses the total prison populations of countries such as France, Japan, Germany, and the UK, as the Yale Law Journal points out.)
“Most of the battle is at the state level.”
—Amy Fettig, ACLU senior staff counsel
The White House is currently urging states to adopt Obama’s reforms. “Without support at state level,” the Guardian notes, Obama “is stymied in his wider ambitions.”
Roy Austin, the president’s deputy assistant for urban affairs, justice and opportunity, and “a leading architect of the administration’s drive to reduce the use of solitary confinement,” as the Guardian writes, told the newspaper that the federal government understood how necessary it was to ensure states would also institute reforms.
“We know a lot of change is local,” Austin said. “In the criminal justice space we represent a small percentage of the number of people arrested and incarcerated, so we are here to provide technical assistance, to learn from states that are getting it right and to serve as a shining example of what can be done.”
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The White House has pushed for local reform on multiple stages: it has hosted a round table discussion on the issue for state leaders and another for NGO advocacy groups, incorporated its new “guiding principles” into the National Institute of Corrections training program, and worked with organizations as diverse as the prison reform group Vera Institute of Justice in New York and national labor groups such the American Correctional Association and the Association of Correctional Administrators.
“Most of the battle is at the state level,” Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s national prison project, told the Guardian. “Having President Obama speak out on this issue is huge, and having the largest prison system in the country, the federal one, move to reduce solitary confinement is very meaningful, but that still leaves us having to go state by state, calling on individual jurisdictions to change.”
There have been recent reports of specific cases where Obama’s push for change had tangible effects. In Tennessee, for example, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on Wednesday against the Department of Children’s Services and the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center to prevent the facility from keeping a 15-year-old boy with developmental disabilities in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
“The unnamed boy was ordered into confinement on April 19 by Rutherford County Juvenile Judge Donna Davenport at the request of Rutherford County detention officials, according to the lawsuit,” the Tennessean reports. “He remained there 23-hours per day for two days in a cell containing only a mattress and toilet, with no access to reading materials or other activities and with the only window covered by a board.”
The boy’s lawyers and his mother are pushing for an end to all solitary confinement for children in the prison, citing Obama’s recent push for such reforms.
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