Obama! There is No Time to Lose, Let’s End Solitary Confinement Once and For All

Most Americans have never seen what solitary confinement looks, feels, sounds, and smells like, but I’m a lawyer for the ACLU who represents thousands of men, women and children held in solitary confinement every day.  I go to solitary to try to protect people’s rights and keep them from harm.  But the truth is I can’t prevent the harm because solitary hurts people; crushes the human spirit; and forces many to suicide and self-mutilation.

Every time I enter a solitary unit, the despair is palpable.  But a few weeks ago in Arizona I met a client, let’s call him “Jose,” who surprised me.  Many of the men in solitary I met that day didn’t know what date it was, how long they’d been there, when or if they would ever get out.  Some clearly hadn’t washed; some were obsessively pacing their cells or cleaning their floors; some were just curled up on their cots staring at nothing. Usually in these cells, normal conversation is impossible-- the door is solid steel and you have to shout to be heard. But Jose walked right up to his cell door, motioning me to come to his small window. 

As I approached, Jose got right to the point: “Is it true Obama visited a prison?  Is it true he called out solitary confinement?”

Yes, Jose, it is true.

When a President speaks, everyone listens—even prisoners trapped in the most brutal solitary confinement units in America.  In July, President Obama became the first president to visit a U.S. prison and to question the use of solitary. At an NAACP conference, he asked, “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 then announced he was ordering the Justice Department to review the use of solitary confinement in prisons and jails across the country.

Today, over a hundred civil and human rights organizations, religious organizations, criminal justice organizations, and mental health professionals from around the country sent a letter to President Obama to applaud his historic remarks recognizing that solitary confinement does nothing to rehabilitate those who are incarcerated. He also announced that the U.S. Attorney General will conduct a national review of the practice.  The letter urges immediate, forceful action – especially given the few months left to Obama’s Presidency.

In this letter, the organizations, including the ACLU, call on President Obama to ensure that his national review of solitary confinement doesn’t just tell us what we already know:  that solitary confinement is an inhumane and ineffective practice that does nothing to promote public safety.  Indeed, decades of research demonstrate the harms of solitary confinement on human beings.  And there is no research that solitary confinement actually makes prisons safe, rather there is growing evidence that the practice has negative impacts on both prison and public safety.

So, instead of summarizing the harms we already know, organizations around the country are asking the President to put forward recommendations that create a clear pathway toward the elimination of long-term and indefinite isolation in the United States. Right now the use of solitary confinement is systematic and widespread in our criminal justice system.  Over 80,000 people are held in solitary confinement in federal and state prisons, and this number does not even include the thousands more in jails, juvenile facilities, immigration detention centers, and military prisons.  Right now America is simply addicted to the use of this inhumane practice. 

In order to break this addiction we need a sustained national effort to create more humane and effective alternatives.

The good news is that states and jurisdictions across the country are implementing policy changes that focus on alternatives to solitary confinement.  Some have abolished the practice for persons under the age of 18, pregnant women, and for persons with mental illness.  Several states are also considering legislative proposals that embrace the recommendations of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, which include prohibiting placement in solitary confinement beyond 15 consecutive days.  But much more is needed.

Today, we call on President Obama to ensure that his historic solitary confinement review makes supporting and incentivizing reforms across the country –and in the federal Bureau of Prisons—an explicit goal and urgent priority. 

As Jose told me, “Solitary is hurting us, Miss.”  We hope Obama hears the message. 

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Alleyne Valdivia

It is inhuman.....


What's inhuman is feeding a criminal for life who has murdered for pleasure or raped a child because we lack the guts to impose a swift death penalty....but if for some reason we can't execute then solitary confinement will have to do.


To the Anonymous who thinks that solitary confinement is right, I hope you got out you there


To the Anonymous who thinks that solitary confinement is right, I hope you got out you there


My son was allowed to transfer to Berlin Federal Prison, hoping to be closer to me. Since he arrived he was immediately threatened by other prisoners, because of his crime. He told a guard he would not be safe there, and they placed him in the SHU. Six months later he still is in the SHU. He is reviewed every week and is told there is no problem and he needed to be with the other inmates. Reluctantly, he made one attempt and again, he was threatened, this time even stronger. Again, he went to the guard saying he feared for his safety and was put back in the SHU, after being out, less than an hour. Because he is "refusing an order" to return to the general population, he is being punished, loss of phone, commisary, and worse he is receiving points against him which places him in a higher level of imprisonment. He has done nothing wrong. He is only trying to protect his safety, why should he be penalized for this. What about the prisoners who have threatened him, they get no punishment. All he wants is to be transferred to a different facility, he was hoping for something closer to me, his only family member. Yes, he has broken the law, but where is the justice here?? So this facility won't work for him, does he have to be subjected to all this negative action and lose points, only because he is trying to protect his safety. Is there someone who could help. Other than this, he has not caused any problems for the prison. And this is their answer?


To all whom think it's ok.. not all inmates in solitary confinement are murderers and rapist.. and some are detained children in our sick justice system who took a wrong path somewhere, Get off your high horse for God sake, none of us are perfect. not everyone in prison is not there for rape or murder...


We can't solve a problem with the same mindset that caused the problem to begin with. We must focus our energy on a solution to the problem rather then the problem in itself. Otherwise there is no revelation to lead to a resolution. This means that there will be no progress with a better outcome if there is no change in the way we go about situations that exist around all of us. Things will just cycle around and around not progressing and only damaging ourselves in the process. There is no future in that. There is no good end result to come of it. This is why we must keep trying to find the right way to go about things that will actually produce a difference in a better direction.

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