The movement to limit the use of solitary confinement in our prisons gained new momentum in January when President Obama took executive action to limit the use of solitary throughout the federal prison system.

After recognizing the terrible consequences that follow when an inmate is placed in solitary, last year the President ordered the Justice Department to review the overuse of the practice. The Justice Department released its recommendations on January 25th and the President adopted them.

The changes to the federal system will be significant and includes the following. The Federal Bureau of Prisons will:

-         End the practice of placing juveniles in solitary;

-         Expand the ability of the Bureau to divert inmates who have serious mental illness from solitary to secure mental health treatment programs;

-         Expand the capacity of the Bureau to place “protective custody” inmates in less restrictive housing;

-         Discourage placement of inmates in solitary during the last 180 days of incarceration.

Each of these changes is important. The extreme isolation from any meaningful human contact imposes a unique and profound stress upon juveniles whose brains and social skills are still developing. Similarly, those inmates who have serious mental illnesses often have no effective coping mechanisms and their psychoses deepen in solitary.  Those inmates who are placed in solitary for their own protection and safety suffer unnecessarily when they themselves have committed no disciplinary infraction. And the inmates who are about to leave a prison must be given a chance to readapt to a normal life that requires routine and relaxed interaction with other humans.

The day after the President’s announcement, the ACLU of Indiana disclosed a settlement with the state of Indiana that, if approved will “transform the way seriously mentally ill prisoners” are treated.  With limited exceptions, the agreement prohibits the placement into solitary of the seriously mentally ill.

These developments coincide with a growing number of settlements throughout the United States that strictly limit the use of solitary. California, Arizona, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Connecticut have all reached agreements.

In Montana, we hope to join the movement with a successful conclusion of our own lawsuit that challenges the treatment of seriously mentally ill inmates in our prison.

The facts are clear and the momentum for change is growing. We can no longer accept the inhumane treatment of prison inmates through the use of solitary confinement. It is bad for the prisoners, bad for the prison guards and a stain upon the conscience of a decent society. 

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