Obama's solitary confinement ban part of criminal justice push

Last Updated Jan 26, 2016 12:22 PM EST

As part of President Obama's overall push to overhaul the criminal justice system and confront racial disparities, he announced late Monday that he has directed federal prisons to no longer use solitary confinement for juveniles and low-level offenders.

In July, he had asked the Justice Department to review the Bureau of Prison's use of solitary confinement, and its resulting report outlined 50 "guiding principles" that would limit the federal prison system's practice of isolating certain prisoners from the rest of the inmate population.

The president adopted some of those recommendations, which include expanding mental health units for inmates with serious mental illnesses. To support the effort, he plans to ask Congress for $24 million in his final budget request. Wardens are also being directed, among other things, to expand the time inmates have out of their cells so they have more opportunities for rehabilitation and reentry.

The changes could affect as many as 10,000 federal inmates, which represents only a tenth of the prisoner population held in solitary confinement across the country. It could also save a lot of money. According to a 2012 press release from Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, it could cost $60,000 a year to house a prisoner in solitary confinement, compared to an average of $22,000 for inmates in other prisons.

In an op-ed published Monday by The Washington Post announcing the policy change, the president said that solitary confinement prevents people from getting a second chance.

"Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior," he said.

Speaking before the NAACP Conference last July in Philadelphia, Mr. Obama raised his misgivings about the practice of such restrictive confinement.

"Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?" he said. "That is not going to make us safer. That's not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It's not smart."

While the president's power is limited, and he cannot dictate how states treat their prisoners, he's sending a message to the states so that they work toward reforming the criminal justice system. It's also significant that the president himself is leading the effort after his former Attorney General Eric Holder had largely been in charge of these projects.

His action also comes a day after action by the Supreme Court on juvenile offenders. The court expanded a 2012 ruling that struck down automatic life terms for teenage killers, asserting that those offenders must be allowed to seek their freedom.

In early 2014, Mr. Obama launched the My Brother's Keeper initiative in an effort to keep Hispanic and black boys out of the criminal justice system, improve their educational experience and prepare them for entering the workforce.

According to the White House, 60 percent of U.S. prisoners are either black or Latino.

The president likely isn't stopping here. He has hinted at continuing this work after he leaves office next January. At a Baton Rouge town hall earlier this month, he was asked what he and first lady Michelle Obama plan to do after leaving the White House.

"I will continue to work on the things that Michelle and I care so deeply about. We want to encourage young people to get involved. We want to improve education. We want to make sure that our criminal justice system works the way it should," he said. "We want to make sure that we are promoting science education and learning. We want to work internationally to help other countries develop."

  • Rebecca Shabad

    Rebecca Shabad is a video reporter for CBS News Digital.