Juveniles make up a relatively small percentage of the federal prison population. President Obama's decision to forbid the placement of those juveniles into solitary confinement does not affect a large number of people. It does, however, contribute to the growing understanding of the damage done by this type of confinement. Several states have also begun changing their policies regarding the use of solitary confinement.
The ban covers all federal prisons and includes both juveniles and people convicted of low-level infractions. In announcing the move, President Obama cited research linking solitary confinement to depression, withdrawal and an increase in the potential for violent behavior. Long periods of solitary confinement have also been tied to mental illness. Research clearly demonstrates that holding someone without human contact causes substantial harm.
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch has discussed a set of guiding principles to help the correctional system perform better. One of those guiding principles was that inmates should be restricted only to the extent necessary to ensure safety. It should rarely be the case that safety demands placing a person in solitary confinement. In the case of prisoners with mental health issues, solitary confinement is unlikely to improve the situation long-term. There are better ways to handle people with mental health concerns than locking them in solitary confinement.
Efforts to address the shortcomings of the criminal justice system have been on the rise recently. Bipartisan support to fix a broken system is growing. Solitary confinement is just one area where prisons are out of step with any legitimate goal of a corrections system. Along with outlandishly long prison sentences for nonviolent offenses, the conditions of our prisons only serve to dehumanize our society.
Source: The New York Times, "Obama Bans Solitary Confinement of Juveniles in Federal Prisons," by Michael D. Shear, 25 January 2016