Several years ago, I read an article in the New Yorker magazine written by Dr. Atul Gawande. The article, entitled “Hellhole”, examined the human impact of long-term solitary confinement and asked, “if prolonged isolation isas research and experience have confirmed for decadesso objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?”
Dr. Gawande’s article inspired me to begin to look into the issue. I was amazed to learn that the United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement approximately 100,000 than any other democratic nation in the world.
In light of the mounting evidence of the dangerous and harmful impacts of solitary confinement, President Obama announced this week that he has accepted a number of recommendations from the Department of Justice to reform and reduce the practice of solitary confinement in the federal prison system.
The recommendations the President adopted include banning solitary confinement for juveniles, diverting inmates with serious mental illness to alternative forms of housing where they will receive the care they need, protecting vulnerable women, and improving the conditions of solitary confinement by increasing inmates’ out-of-cell time and access to services.
President Obama’s decision to address the overuse of solitary confinement represents a major step forward in protecting human rights, increasing public safety, and improving fiscal responsibility in our federal prisons. However, our nation still has the most people incarcerated of any nation in the world.
Last year, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and I worked with a bipartisan coalition of senators to introduce the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. In order to comprehensively address the problems facing our federal prisons, we should bring this bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation to the Senate floor and work with our colleagues in the House to send the bill to the President’s desk this year.