Advocacy groups urge overhaul of federal solitary confinement procedures

Empty Jail Cell
Advocates call for solitary confinement reform

In an open letter to President Obama [PDF], published October 1, civil rights groups called on the President to follow through on his recent promises to reduce the federal government’s reliance on solitary confinement.

“Neuroscience, ethics and international human rights law widely consider solitary confinement a form of torture. Indeed, decades of research demonstrate the harms of solitary confinement on human beings,” the letter states. “Its systematic and widespread use in our criminal justice system compromises our stated commitments to human rights, human dignity, the human potential for redemption, and public safety.”

The practice of solitary confinement consists of isolating prisoners in jail cells alone, often for as many as 23 hours per day. Numerous reports show that people with disabilities are overwhelmingly disproportionately represented among inmates held in solitary confinement.

In July, President Obama strongly criticized solitary confinement at the N.A.A.C.P. Convention in Philadelphia, followed by an announcement ordering a Department of Justice review of the practice in federal prisons.

In the letter, advocates urged the Obama Administration, as part of the review, to prioritize alternative practices treating inmates, such as mental health treatment. They also called for the Administration to detail a “clear path to the elimination of long-term isolation.”

The letter was signed by 126 organizations, including the National Disability Rights Network, Disability Rights Washington and six other Protection and Advocacy organizations.

According to a recent audit from the federal Bureau of Prisons, more than 10,000 people were isolated in solitary confinement on any given day in  2013. It is estimated that more than 80,000 are being held in solitary confinement in prisons nationwide.

Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, is the protection and advocacy agency for Washington, and is a member of the National Disability Rights Network.