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Citing second chances, Obama pledges solitary confinement reform

January 26, 2016 at 6:45 PM EDT
President Obama has pledged to ban solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system and to reform the rules for other prisoners. What effect will his executive actions have? Hari Sreenivasan discusses the proposed changes with Maurice Chammah of The Marshall Project and Shaka Senghor of #Cut50, who spent seven years in solitary confinement.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In the latter part of his tenure, President Obama has put criminal justice reform high on his agenda.

His latest move includes a new ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system. The executive actions also put new limits on how long federal prison officials can use solitary for first-time offenses.

The Department of Justice caps its use at two months, rather than a full year. And the president prohibited federal officers from using solitary for low-level infractions.

Hari Sreenivasan has our look.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The president’s changes would affect about 10,000 federal inmates a year.

In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, the president cited the case of Kalief Browder, who went to prison at the age of 16 and committed suicide at 22, about two years after he was released. He spent nearly two years in solitary at Rikers Island.

In the op-ed, the president says — quote — “Solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences. The United States is a nation of second chances, but the experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance.”

We discuss these changes with Shaka Senghor, who was convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison at the age of 19, and during parts of his sentence, he spent a total of seven years in solitary. He’s written a memoir and is with the group #Cut50, a national bipartisan initiative to reduce the prison population. And Maurice Chammah of The Marshall Project, a not-for-profit news organization covering the criminal justice system.

Maurice, I want to start with you.

One of the critiques here is that this is going to affect a very small population in federal prison, compared to the large populations that we have in state prisons. How significant is this impact going to be?

MAURICE CHAMMAH, The Marshall Project: That’s true.

It’s kind of hard to tell at this moment sort of how widespread it will be. One of the things the president has done has been to ban solitary confinement for juveniles in the system, and in the federal prison system, there’s maybe a dozen of that sort of inmate. But across the states, in state prisons and jails, like Rikers Island, where Kalief Browder was, there are thousands of juveniles who are sometimes held in solitary confinement.

And the president’s actions won’t affect them, though it is a signal, of course, to people who run prison systems around the country that the kind of national mood is shifting on this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shaka, I’m sure you’re excited about the president’s announcement today, but tell us a bit of why you think this is important. You had been in solitary. What did it do to you in the short term and in the long term?

SHAKA SENGHOR, #Cut50: Well, I’m super excited about the president’s decision today, because I know the impact that it is going to have on men and women who are currently in solitary confinement in the federal prison system.

And for me, personally, knowing the devastating impact of being in the most barbaric and inhumane environment, locked down for 23 hours a day, and in some cases 24 hours a day, I just think that it’s one of those type of moments where it helps people to think about, you know, what our responsibility is in terms of men and women who come home from prison.

And we have a choice. We have a choice whether we want to bring home healthy men and women or broken men and women. And when I was in solitary confinement, I remember dealing with depression and dealing with, you know, the feeling of hopelessness. And when you have somebody incarcerated, the last thing you want to do is leave them with a sense of hopelessness.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What did it do to you when you were coming out? What kind of effects did you still have to deal with and maybe even deal with today?

SHAKA SENGHOR: Well, after — I served a total of seven years in solitary confinement, and at one point four-and-a-half years straight.

And one of the things that I struggled with getting out was the ability to just communicate in normal ways with everyday people. I wasn’t very trustworthy of people touching me or standing behind me. I dealt with sensory deprivation. I dealt with depth of field perception.

I’ll tell you, there was — I had a little struggle driving and being able to adjust because I had been in a box for so long. And so it’s small, nuanced things. And, fortunately, I was literate while I was in solitary, so I was able to read books about Nelson Mandela that kept me focused and kept me strong.

But that’s not the typical case in an environment where the majority of men that I was around were suffering from severe cases of mental illness, and if they didn’t have it going in, they definitely left out with it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But, Maurice, what is the justification and rationale that prison officials give you for solitary confinement?

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Well, there are a few.

Usually, people are placed in solitary confinement because the wardens or the correctional officers in the institution feel that that person might be a threat. Either they attacked someone or they, you know, attacked, you know, either their cell mate or an officer.

But, you know, often, the justification has kind of stretched down into smaller, more mundane, mouthing off at an officer or refusing a direct order. You know, they’re — one of the major concerns I think a lot of people have is that correctional officers have sort of become overly used to using solitary confinement as a punishment.

Sometimes, you also hear the justification used that younger inmates, who are maybe more vulnerable, need to be in solitary confinement for their own protection. Luckily, that rationale has sort of slowly been ebbing away, though it still does exist in some prisons.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Shaka, given those reasons, did solitary work? When you were placed in there, when you came out, did your behavior change toward what they wanted? And I guess the corollary to that is, what would have worked better?

SHAKA SENGHOR: In my instance, it was more a matter of what I chose to do with the time that I had when I was in solitary confinement.

I actually set my cell up like I was at a college campus. But, again, that speaks to my literacy going in. To me, there’s really no long-term benefits for putting somebody in solitary confinement. And I think what I would have benefited from was actually counseling, conflict resolution, and being in an environment that nourishes the healthy part of human interactions.

And, unfortunately, that is just not the way our systems are designed. We have a very punitive system that has been a model for decades. And I think that what the president has shown is that we have to take a step toward what we really want to see outcomes be, which is, we want to make sure that healthy men and women are returning home.

And in order to do that, you have to pour into them a sense of respect, dignity, hope, and health. And when you fail to do that, you can’t be surprised when the outcomes aren’t positive.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Maurice, let’s talk a little bit about some of the other executive actions, or at least the initiatives that the administration is trying to outline today, besides just the ones for juveniles.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Sure.

Well, he’s also limiting, basically, the way in which solitary confinement can be used sort of across the board within the federal prison system for people who break rules. And it kind of signals, sends a message sort of from the top down to Bureau of Prison administrators that they have to kind of figure out a different way to deal with people who break rules within federal prisons.

This is kind of broadly in line with things that different states have tried out. The president did mention sort of state experiments in his op-ed. And different states are kind of looking at ways to, instead of put people in solitary confinement, to do sort of what Shaka has been describing, to give them counseling.

In Washington state, in Colorado, they’re doing this. You’re kind of seeing that tide shift a little bit and the president’s — the president’s op-ed kind of is a capstone for that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Shaka, in just the brief amount of time we have left, you’re working with an organization that is trying to move the ball forward on different types of criminal justice reform.

Is there a tipping point here? There seems to be some momentum that Maurice is outlining.

SHAKA SENGHOR: Yes.

The work that I have been doing with #Cut50 has been amazing, in the sense that it gives us an inside look at what policies are being put on the table. But the last six months, I mean, the president has set the tone as the leader in terms of assuring that he’s paving the way by going inside of prison, really coming up with these aggressive policies.

While we know that this only impacts federal prison, I’m confident that the states will pick up his leadership and take, you know, and follow his lead.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Shaka Senghor from #Cut50, and Maurice Chammah from The Marshall Project, thanks so much for joining us.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Thanks for having us.

SHAKA SENGHOR: Thank you for having us.

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