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POV: Obama’s Ban on Juvenile Solitary Confinement

More than rules needed to solve problem


A recent headline in the New York Times reads: “Obama Bans Solitary Confinement of Juveniles in Federal Prisons.” As headlines often do, this one leaves readers with a sort of visual sound bite that is misleading and an oversimplification.

In fact, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has custodial responsibility for very few juveniles. According to the US Department of Justice Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing (January 2016), the Bureau of Prisons does not actually house juveniles. It contracts with state and local juvenile facilities to hold them. The count as of December 2015 was 71 juveniles under federally contracted custodial supervision—26 were on probation, 45 were imprisoned, and of those 45, 13 were held in restrictive housing. Although I am unfamiliar with those 13 cases, it is highly likely that those juveniles were in special housing for one of the following reasons: they were being protected from gang-related hazards; they posed a severe threat of violence to themselves or others; they were separated from the general population pending an investigation of a major disciplinary offense or criminal act. Restrictive housing is a necessity in correctional facilities. The problem occurs when it is the placement of first resort rather than last.

“Solitary confinement” conjures up images of a prisoner subsisting on bread and water, sinking into the abyss of madness in a cold, dark cell. This portrait might bear some semblance of reality to prisons in a bygone era, when penitentiaries were specifically designed to force prisoners to think about their misdeeds in solitude and repent (hence the term penitentiary). Today, the conditions of most solitary confinement placements might include a cellmate, a TV, books, visits from attorneys and others, daily medical check-ins, exercise, telephone calls, and showers. This is not to say that such living arrangements are ideal. They aren’t. Prisoners benefit both physically and mentally when they are free to move about an institution to get fresh air and sunshine, socialize with others, and attend programming. But there are national standards that govern the treatment of prisoners who are so difficult to manage that they should not leave the confines of a cell.

Even standards, policies, regulations, and bans (sorry, President Obama) won’t cure the overutilization of restrictive housing. Prison staff will find novel ways to neutralize a threat. What is needed is the willingness to assess every special housing case on its merits and devote the resources and out-of-the-box thinking to the humane, effective handling of extremely disruptive prisoners. With a national prison population of over 1.5 million (the Sentencing Project, 2014) there are a lot of broad strokes being applied to the management of those deemed security risks.

In a prison where I once worked as a deputy superintendent, I met with the mental health team to devise a plan of action for a young adult prisoner who was mentally ill (he had a history of severe self-mutilation) and found himself being moved in and out of the segregation and health care units while we stabilized him medically and behaviorally. When the team asked me what my goal was with him, I said it was to get him to function in the general population. When their skepticism subsided, we pulled together a multidisciplinary team of medical, mental health, security, and casework staff who worked with this individual covering all three shifts, seven days a week. It was a kind of behavior modification plan that didn’t reinforce the attention-getting effects of his cutting; it rewarded his compliant behavior by granting more recreation time or an extra shower. Also, it demonstrated to him that a lot of people cared. The plan worked. This kind of approach doesn’t normally occur in a correctional setting where the tendency is to simply segregate disruptive inmates because you have 1,000 more you have to look after.

Prisons are in the business of deterrence, incapacitation, risk management, with offender reform coming in a distant fourth. When the first three objectives dominate, we have the situation we now see—an overreliance on restrictive housing. We need a far more balanced approach, one that values the idea that inmates can change. The president’s ban on solitary confinement of juveniles in the Federal Bureau of Prisons is more symbolic than material, but at least it brings awareness to a population that is invisible and voiceless.

Mary Ellen Mastrorilli, a Metropolitan College assistant professor and associate chair of applied social sciences, can be reached at memastro@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


2 Comments on POV: Obama’s Ban on Juvenile Solitary Confinement

  • Zoe Wyse on 03.14.2016 at 8:12 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful analysis. I absolutely agree with you that situations should be evaluated on a case by case basis and helpful plans should be devised to support people. I also agree with you that in some cases it may be necessary to put someone in their own room.

    The kind of arrangement which you described, in which people who are housed in their own room have contact with medical staff, visits from various people, etc, is much more humane than some of the conditions of isolation that others have reported. When people are housed in conditions of almost total isolation, devastating psychological harm quickly seems to become apparent in many people. The conditions in the prison you are describing definitely sound far more humane than conditions of near complete social isolation which it sounds like may exist in some prisons.

    I absolutely agree with you that this is not a “black and white” issue. There is lots of room for creativity and flexibility. No one should be left alone for long periods of time with no one (or practically no one) to engage constructively with. But there do not necessarily need to be completely clear-cut rules or guidelines, as long as there is a broad agreement on what overall conditions should look like. It seems like some prisons are already using some more humane practices and others are working hard to do so.

    Understaffing of some prisons may make needed changes difficult in some situations. In these situations more staff should be added. It is not correctional officers’ fault if they are so understaffed that their primary goal needs to be on maintaining conditions of basic safety. I want them to be safe, and I want people in prisons to be safe.

    However, social isolation, when it is used (and I agree that it sounds like not all prisons necessarily use it), is not fundamentally safe for people’s mental well-being. Prisons should be funded at a level that allows people to have someone to speak with, even if a person must be in their own room because they are in a dangerous state. There should also be funding so that innovative programs (such as the one you describe) can be devised and implemented.

    Thank you so much for writing this article, as I think it speaks so beautifully to the complexity of this issue. Your story of helping the person who was struggling with some issues find helpful ways to grow and change was a beautiful story of what a team of people can accomplish together when they both care and have the time and resources to help.

    I am also grateful that President Obama put such a national focus on this issue through his executive order. It is wonderful when people in leadership positions focus attention and concern on some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. It shows great character, integrity, and dedication to our human values. Many leaders in prisons are also showing this kind of commitment, which is very heartening.

  • Mary Ellen Mastrorilli on 03.14.2016 at 8:46 pm

    Thank you for continuing this discussion, Zoe.

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