Four months after a Fusion investigation into the horrors of juvenile jails highlighted the practice, President Obama announced Monday night that he would ban solitary confinement for minors in federal prisons, part of a broader plan that could improve conditions for 10,000 inmates nationwide.
Obama announced the move, along with several other executive actions on criminal justice, in a Washington Post op-ed that cited “heartbreaking results” of isolation punishments on kids, including lasting emotional harm and higher rates of suicide.
“The United States is a nation of second chances,” the president wrote, “but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance.”
Last September, Fusion produced Prison Kids, an hourlong investigative documentary and a series of articles that detailed the the stories of kids who grew up behind bars. It found children subjected to solitary confinement; mental health problems; physical and mental abuse; racial inequities; lives ruined forever at an early age. It also coincided with a broader bipartisan push on Capitol Hill for criminal justice reform. One leader of that push, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), cited Fusion’s reporting in his case for new legislation.
Based on the reporting in Prison Kids, Fusion launched a Change.org petition to urge Obama to end solitary confinement for minors, in line with recommendations from the Department of Justice.
Obama ultimately agreed. “In America, we believe in redemption,” he wrote. “We believe that when people make mistakes, they deserve the opportunity to remake their lives.”
The president acknowledged that ending solitary confinement for children was only one small advance in the U.S.’s larger incarceration problem. “Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep 2.2 million people incarcerated,” he wrote. “Many criminals belong behind bars. But too many others, especially nonviolent drug offenders, are serving unnecessarily long sentences.” Additionally, the executive action only applies to federal inmates; the vast majority of children in jails in America are in state facilities. Unless all states move to ban the practice, the U.S. will remain the only industrialized nation that puts children in solitary confinement.
But this one move was worth taking unilaterally, Obama concluded. “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?” he wrote.
“It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”
Watch Prison Kids, Fusion’s full documentary, above, and read more on America’s crimes against children in prison here.