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Obama will ban solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons

Last Updated Jan 25, 2016 11:32 PM EST

President Obama said Monday he will ban the use of solitary confinement for juvenile and low-level offenders in federal prisons, citing the potential for "devastating, lasting psychological consequences" from the use of the isolation as punishment.

"It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior," Mr. Obama wrote in an op-ed posted Monday evening on the Washington Post's website. "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."

He cited the example of Kalief Browder, who was 16 years old in 2010, when he was accused of stealing a backpack. The Bronx teen was sent to Rikers Island and spent two years in solitary confinement before he was finally released without a trial.

Browder made it through a semester at Bronx Community College after his incarceration. "But life was a constant struggle to recover from the trauma of being locked up alone for 23 hours a day," the president wrote. "One Saturday, he committed suicide at home. He was just 22 years old."

The president asked the Justice Department to review the use of solitary confinement last summer, as part of the administration's increased focus on the criminal justice system. Activists have been pushing for changes to the prison system.

The department review produced recommendations and 50 "guiding principles," which officials said would aim to make solitary confinement an increasingly rare punishment used as an option of last resort. The department concluded that "there are occasions when correctional officials have no choice but to segregate inmates," such as when they pose a danger to staff, other inmates or the public.

The guidance is specific on a range of issues, including training for prison employees to how solitary confinement inmates should be reintegrated into the general prison population. With its report, the Justice Department aims to reform the use of solitary confinement and limit its application.

Other changes would expand treatment for the mentally ill and ensure that inmates in solitary can spend more time outside their cells.

Mr. Obama said the reforms would affect roughly 10,000 inmates in the federal system. Roughly 100,000 people are in solitary confinement in the U.S., he said, adding that he hoped the changes would serve as a model for reforms at the state level.

CBS News' Paula Reid contributed to this report