Obama's push to end solitary confinement is part of a historic effort to reform the criminal justice system in America.



Here's Why Obama's Ban on Solitary Confinement for Juveniles Matters

All across the country, a hundred thousand people are locked away from the world in isolated rooms. No contact. No sunshine. No hope. Up until today, solitary confinement was used on prisoners indiscriminately, regardless of their mental health or age. That could all change now, with President Obama‘s announcement that he’s banning solitary confinement for juveniles and those who are thrown into jail over low-level infractions. The move comes months after he became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison. It’s one big step toward finally ending the highly detrimental practice, whose effects have been compared to torture by the United Nations for years.

Solitary confinement has been depicted in dozens of TV shows and movies, yet very few truly show its long-term consequences. Piper spent a few episodes of OITNB struggling to maintain her sanity in solitary. But after she left, the issue didn’t seem to haunt her like it does for the thousands who try to recover from the mental abuse they endure there every year. Your mental health, it turns out, doesn’t just snap back to normal after you’re freed from solitary confinement.

“It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others, and the potential for violent behavior,” Obama explained. “Prisoners in solitary are more likely to commit suicide, especially juveniles and people with mental illnesses.”

Kalief Browder was kept in solitary confinement for two years despite having no charges filed against him.
Kalief Browder was kept in solitary confinement for two years despite having no charges filed against him.

To illustrate why this issue has become so out of control, Obama recalled the tragic story of Kalief Browder’s struggle—and ultimate failure—to move on from the two years he spent in solitary confinement. Browder was arrested in 2010 when he was 16 years old on suspicion of stealing a backpack, and was subsequently sent to Rikers Island to await trial. For three years he was beaten by inmates and guards and put in solitary confinement, only to be released without charges in 2013. From there he struggled to overcome the mental health issues that had started during his time in solitary and ultimately ended his life when he was only 22 years old. His story is not a unique case. Hundreds of other people have suffered through weeks, months, and years of solitary confinement.

Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore was held in solitary confinement for over 28 years.

Perhaps more famous than the case of Browder is that of 60-year-old Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, who spent 28 years in solitary confinement. To put that into perspective, 28 years ago Rain Man won Best Picture, George H.W. Bush was elected president, and nobody knew what a cell phone was. No matter how long one spends in solitary, the fact remains that it’s inhumane psychological torture. As UC Berkeley psychiatry professor Dr. Terry Kupers explained, “Human beings require two very basic things: social interaction and meaningful activity. By doing things we learn who we are and we learn our worth as a person.”

Obama’s ban on solitary confinement for juveniles is the right step forward in his newfound focus on criminal justice reform. We hope that on this issue, both parties can come together to finally end the practice of solitary confinement. Maybe they’ll even put a stop to the ridiculous amount of money we spend on keeping over two million Americans incarcerated. Solitary confinement has gone on for decades. That’s too long.

Stay tuned to Milk for more political news.

Images via VICE, ABC News, and Victoria & Albert Museum.  

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