For years civil liberties and human rights advocates have called for an end to the practice of holding federal and state prison inmates in solitary confinement, a form of extreme punishment that isolates individuals from all contact with other human beings for weeks, months or years at a time. The United Nations long ago condemned it as a degrading, inhuman form of abuse that amounts to little more than torture by another name, while the American Civil Liberties Union calls it a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Yet thousands of inmates across the country continue to be mentally and physically brutalized by its use, despite the fact that it doesn't increase prison safety and actually makes it more likely that inmates will re-offend when they get out.
That's why we welcome President Barack Obama's announcement on Monday that he will use his executive powers to ban solitary confinement entirely for juvenile offenders in the federal prison system as well as drastically limit the conditions under which it can be used to discipline adult offenders. In an op-ed that appeared in Tuesday's edition of The Washington Post, Mr. Obama said he had concluded that the practice of holding inmates in solitary confinement for extended periods is overused as a technique for controlling prison populations and that whatever benefits, if any, it may offer corrections officials are vastly outweighed by the potentially devastating psychological consequences for those who suffer it.
Among the executive actions announced by the president are new rules banning federal corrections officials from using solitary confinement to punish prisoners who commit "low-level infractions" and reducing the longest period prisoners can be subjected to the punishment from the current 365 days to 60 days for a first offense. The reforms will affect about 10,000 inmates in federal prisons, which have relatively few juvenile offenders but which sent nonviolent adult offenders to solitary 3,800 times in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2014.
Other reforms proposed by the president are based on new Justice Department guidelines that would increase the time inmates in solitary are allowed to be outside their cells, require that prisoners be housed in the "least restrictive setting necessary" for their own and others' safety and discourage corrections officials from putting inmates in solitary during the last six months of their terms, which can vastly complicate the problems they face in adjusting to the world outside prison. "How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?" the president asked in the op-ed. "It doesn't make us safer. It's an affront to our common humanity."
The changes introduced by Mr. Obama reflect a growing trend among state corrections officials to limit the use of solitary confinement, either in response to lawsuits or through legislative and administrative changes. Last year New York moved to sharply limit the practice in cases involving juveniles and people suffering from mental illnesses, and lawmakers in nearly a dozen other states, including Maine, Colorado, California and Washington, are contemplating similar reforms.
Though Maryland corrections officials have long denied using solitary confinement to control the state's prison population, roughly 8 percent of the 21,000 inmates held here at any given time are in some form of administrative segregation, disciplinary segregation or protective custody, where the conditions of their confinement are often equivalent to solitary. That appears to be a higher percentage of inmates in segregated confinement than in most states, and the picture is further complicated by the fact that Maryland doesn't keep adequate records of how long the average inmate remains in segregation, how many are juveniles or adults suffering from mental illnesses or whether segregated inmates are more likely to commit new crimes when they are released.
Mr. Obama clearly hopes that his reforms at the federal level will serve as a model for states to rethink their rules on solitary confinement. But for that to happen in Maryland the state must first publish the data that would show the extent of the problem here. In 2014, bills in the Maryland General Assembly that would have mandated an independent investigation of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' use of isolated confinement never made it out of committee. Lawmakers should revive that legislation and pass it this year. It unconscionable for the state to continue a universally condemned practice whose costs are exorbitant but that produces no real benefit to public safety. A good place to start is by fully implementing on the state level the federal prison reforms outlined in the president's executive orders this week.