Concerned about prisoners’ mental health, Obama unveils policy to curb solitary confinement

The practice of solitary confinement, also termed as “restrictive housing,” has been increasingly used by the American prison officials to manage uncertain and perilous convicts. So much so that President Barack Obama had to announce a slew of measures recently against the most debated practice of solitary confinement in federal prisons.

In an address to the nation, urging people to rethink the practice of solitary confinement, President Obama said on January 25, 2016, “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. 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. The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance. Those who do make it out often have trouble holding down jobs, reuniting with family and becoming productive members of society. Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children.”

Guiding principles

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, during an audit of facilities being provided at the prisons, had revealed that approximately 60 percent of the individuals locked up in solitary confinement suffer from some form of mental illnesses left untreated. The result of the audit and stories of freed prisoners’ inability to earn a living due to undiagnosed mental illness prompted Obama to ask Attorney General Loretta Lynch to conduct a review of “the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons.”

The purpose of the review, as per the President’s directive, was to seek ways and prepare a set of policies to enable reduce the use of this practice subject to the condition that the practice is implemented only when necessary. A report prepared and submitted by the U.S. Department of Justice includes more than 50 Guiding Principles proposed to be implemented as best practices for correctional facilities across the American criminal justice system. The Department of Justice said, “Inmates should be housed in the least restrictive setting necessary to ensure their own safety, as well as the safety of staff, other inmates, and the public.”

“An inmate’s initial and ongoing placement in restrictive housing should be regularly reviewed by a multi-disciplinary staff committee, which should include not only the leadership of the institution where the inmate is housed, but also medical and mental health professionals,” it said.

Solitary confinement in figures

Expressing deep concern over the fact that approximately 100,000 prisoners are placed in solitary across the country each year, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Executive Director Mary Giliberti said, “It is well documented in research that long term segregation in prisons has devastating emotional consequences for all individuals. For individuals with pre-existing serious mental illness, it is akin to torture, a sure fire way to worsen symptoms and decrease the opportunity of successful reentry into society.”

The policy changes would apply broadly to the roughly 10,000 federal inmates serving time in solitary confinement and as per the new rules, the longest period of solitary confinement that a prisoner can be subjected to is 60 days, as opposed to the current limit of 365 days.

‘Focus on diverting people with serious mental illnesses from criminal justice system’

The federal guidelines outlined by the U.S. Department of Justice restrict the solitary confinement of prisoners suffering from serious mental disorders. Obama, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, wrote, “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”

Praising the President’s effort to regulate and control the practice of solitary confinement in a bid to provide access to treatment for mental illness, Giliberti said, “President Obama’s statement and orders represent an important step forward in establishing more humane alternatives to the use of solitary confinement in the federal prison system. We hope that all states will follow his lead and take similar steps to eliminate these draconian practices, particularly with juveniles and individuals with serious mental illness. We also call on federal and state officials to focus on diverting people of all ages with serious mental illnesses from the criminal justice system in the first place.”

Recovery from mental problems

Life in prison can be tough, especially in cases of solitary confinement. If you or your loved one is battling depression that has aggravated due to psychological stressors, such as isolation coupled with physical torture, you may seek professional help from 24/7 Mental Health Helpline. Call anytime at 855-653-8178 for more information on certified medical care.