White House

Critics of Solitary Confinement Buoyed as Obama Embraces Cause


July 21, 2015

WASHINGTON — Before he was exonerated of murder and released in 2010, Anthony Graves spent 18 years locked up in a Texas prison, 16 of them all alone in a tiny cell.

Actually, he does not count it that way. He counts his time in solitary confinement as “60 square feet, 24 hours a day, 6,640 days.” The purpose, Mr. Graves came to conclude, was simple. “It is designed to break a man’s will to live,” he said in an interview.

An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States, and for the first time in generations, leaders are rethinking the practice. President Obama last week ordered a Justice Department review of solitary confinement while Congress and more than a dozen states consider limits on it. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a Supreme Court ruling last month, all but invited a constitutional challenge.

“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?” Mr. Obama asked in a speech at a convention of the N.A.A.C.P. in Philadelphia, where he called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system. “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.”

Photo

Anthony Graves, left, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on solitary confinement in 2012. Mr. Graves spent 16 of his 18 years in a Texas prison in solitary confinement before being exonerated in 2010. CreditJonathan Ernst for The New York Times

While other changes to the justice system would require Congress to act, this is one area where the president has at least some latitude, although it is uncertain how much. Either way, it could be a test of his drive in his final 18 months in office to remake America’s prisons. In his N.A.A.C.P. speech and during a visit to a federal prison, the first by a sitting president, Mr. Obama expressed a concern for the lives of prisoners that few, if any, of his predecessors have shown.

“No president has ever suggested that there’s anything problematic about solitary confinement, that we should be studying it or that it’s overused,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “I feel like that has got to be some sort of a tipping point.”

The Rev. Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, called the moment “a game changer.” He said: “We’ve been saying for decades, ‘It’s time,’ and it really feels now like it is time. The silence has been broken.”

Studies have found that solitary confinement exacerbates mental illness and that even stable people held in isolation report experiencing psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, self-cutting or other acts of self-harm, or compulsive actions like pacing or cleaning a cell over and over.

“When they get out, they are broken,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist in California who consults on prison conditions and mental health programs. “This is permanent damage.”

Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said prolonged solitary confinement amounted to torture. “Putting someone in solitary confinement does horrible things to a person’s personality, their psyche, their character,” he said. “It might be said that condemning a person to solitary confinement treats a person as an animal. And so that they emerge from such treatment exhibiting animalistic behavior can’t be surprising.”

Many corrections officials, even those who believe that solitary confinement is overused, caution that in some situations, it may be unavoidable.

“If someone has committed a violent assault, whether it be a staff member or another inmate, until you can somehow solve that problem, that person is going to need to be isolated,” said Rick Raemisch, executive director of Colorado’s corrections department. He pointed to an inmate who said he would kill someone if he were allowed out of solitary, a threat mental health professionals considered credible.

Mr. Raemisch has worked to substantially reduce the use of solitary confinement in Colorado but said groups that opposed it altogether should help develop other ways to handle inmates who pose a danger of violence. “There are those that say this is bad,” he said, “but when you look around for an alternative, people have left the room.”

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BREAKING : Obama Frees Dozens Of Nonviolent Federal Inmates


July 13, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama announced Monday that he has granted dozens of federal inmates their freedom, as part of an effort to counteract draconian penalties handed out to nonviolent drug offenders in the past.

The 46 inmates who had their sentences reduced represent a small fraction of the tens of thousands of inmates who have applied. The U.S. Justice Department prioritizes applications from inmates who are nonviolent, low-level offenders, have already served at least a decade in prison, and would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted today, among other factors.

“I am granting your application because you have demonstrated the potential to turn your life around,” Obama wrote in a letter to the inmates. “Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will confront many who doubt people with criminal records can change. Perhaps even you are unsure of how you will adjust to your new circumstances.”

The president has now issued nearly 90 commutations, the vast majority of them to nonviolent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules.

Thanks to stringent mandatory minimums and other laws, a number of nonviolent drug offenders have been sentenced to life in prison without parole. One such applicant for clemency was Dicky Joe Jackson, who was caught selling meth in order to pay for a bone marrow transplant for his young son. He told The Huffington Post earlier this week that he had seen “child molesters come in and out of here, rapists come in and out of here, murderers come in and out here,” and yet he was still serving a life sentence without parole.

Another applicant was Alice Marie Johnson, a mother of five who was hoping for commutation of her life-without-parole sentence. After she divorced and lost her job, she got involved in the drug trade and was sentenced as a first-time nonviolent offender. “I did do something wrong,” she recently told HuffPost. “But this [was] a bad choice in my life that has cost me my life.”

The overwhelming majority of those who just received clemency had been sentenced for crimes involving crack and cocaine, while two were marijuana cases.

Neither Jackson nor Johnson was included in the list of individuals who had their sentences commuted.

A number of federal sentencing reforms have been implemented since the height of the drug war. In 2010, Congress passed a law narrowing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. The Justice Department also announced in 2013 that it would no longer seek mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders. The following year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission agreed to reduce drug trafficking sentences retroactively.

Both Republicans and Democrats recognize that the criminal justice system is in dire need of additional reform. But commutations have been slow-going. According to The New York Times, the White House has asked the Justice Department to speed up the process by which it sends over applicants.

In his letter to those who received clemency, the president continued, “Remember that you have the capacity to make good choices. By doing so, you will affect not only your life, but those close to you. You will also influence, through your example, the possibility that others in your circumstances get their own second chance in the future. I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong, and change your life for the better.”

Obama to become first sitting president to visit a prison


July 10. 2015

President Obama will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, part of a push he plans next week for reforming the criminal justice system.