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 email@example.com.
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