HOT TOPICS ▶ Climate Change     Undoing The New Deal     The Real Baltimore     Reality Asserts Itself     United Kingdom    

  January 27, 2016

How Organizing and Social Movements Drove Changes to Federal Policy on Solitary Confinement

Alan Mills of Uptown People's Law Center and Bernadette Rabuy of Prison Policy Initiative say lawsuits, psychological studies, and persistent grassroots pressure were behind Obama's recent policy changes
Members don't see ads. If you are a member, and you're seeing this appeal, click here


Share to Facebook Share to Twitter

I support the Real News Network because of their bravery, integrity, informative and educational - David Pear
Log in and tell us why you support TRNN


Bernadette Rabuy is the Policy & Communications Associate at the Prison Policy Initiative. Bernadette's research has focused on prison and jail visitation and making key criminal justice data accessible to the public. She co-authored the first comprehensive national report on the video visitation industry, Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails, which has played a key role in protecting in-person family visits in Portland, Oregon and the state of Texas from the predatory industry. Her research was also essential to the movement that led the largest video visitation provider, Securus, to stop its automatic bans on in-person visits. Bernadette has analyzed key Bureau of Justice Statistics data to make the criminal justice system easier to understand and therefore reform. She co-authored the report, Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned, which for the first time provides national income data for incarcerated women and Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2015, which answers essential questions like how many people are locked up, where, and why. Bernadette is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley and has previously worked with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Voice of the Ex-Offender, and Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

Alan Mills is the Legal Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, Illinois. The Center has been involved in ongoing litigation on behalf of Illinois prisoners challenging the procedures used to send inmates to Tamms, the state’s supermax facility. Shortly after Illinois Governor announced plans to close Tamms, he spoke with Solitary Watch about the path that led him to prisoner’s rights work and the Tamms litigation.


SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

On Monday, January 25, President Obama announced a set of sweeping reforms centered on the policy of solitary confinement in prisons. The reforms include a complete ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system and drastically reduced time for first offenders in isolation. According to the Washington Post, one study found that prisoners in the state of Washington held in solitary confinement had 20-25 percent higher rate of reoffending, and that those subject to solitary confinement were more likely to commit violent crimes once they got out. In an op-ed in the Washington Post on Tuesday, the president wrote:

“How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?”

On to discuss all of this and President Obama's recent executive order on solitary confinement is Alan Mills and Bernadette Rabuy. Alan is executive director at Uptown People's Law Center in Illinois, and Bernadette is the policy and communications associate at the Prison Policy Initiative. Thank you both for joining us.

ALAN MILLS: I'm glad to be here.

PERIES: So let me go to you, Bernadette, first. It's amazing that the society still accepts solitary confinement for juveniles. How did American society get to this state? How did this become so normalized in prisons?

BERNADETTE RABUY: Yeah, well, I think we have this system of mass incarceration, in which we have 2.3 million people locked up in the United States, and thousands in the facilities. We're trying to reform this system where for decades political leaders were motivated by this idea of locking people up, just throwing away the key, and not really thinking about the ramifications of this sort of a policy for not only those people who are being put in solitary confinement, but also as [designation], where most people who are in our prisons and jails are going to be released. So what does it mean when we have juveniles in solitary confinement? We have adults in states like California spending decades in solitary confinement, isolated for at least 22 hours for each day for more than ten years.

PERIES: Alan, let me let you get in on this. How did we get to a state where we are locking up juveniles in solitary confinement?

MILLS: As Bernadette just said, this country's used mass incarceration on a scale that's unknown anywhere in the world. We lock up more people than anybody else in the entire world. And we view solitary, frankly, as the way to solve problems in the prison system. Just like we think of prison as the default for many social problems, inside the prison system we have simply locked away rather than trying to solve problems, disappearing them into black holes where they stay for sometimes decades. We've done that in the juvenile system, we've done that in the adult system.

PERIES: So, Alan, let me also ask you, now, President Obama has been in office for seven years. You would think that this is one of the first things that he would tackle. And I know he's been trying to use his executive powers to push through this action in the past, but what took so long?

MILLS: Well, I, I think that there's a national movement. I mean, he's not the only one to be a recent convert to this issue. I think the prisoners in California who did a hunger strike over two different years, a series of lawsuits around the country, including one that we're pursuing right now, very good policy work being done by the ACLU's National Prison Project, and done by Bernadette's folks out there at the Prison Policy Initiative, all of that has really created a movement around the country to challenge for the first time in decades our incredibly high number of people that we keep in solitary confinement.

At the same time, the medical side of things has gotten more and more detailed, and we're getting more and more evidence of the harm that it does to people who spend long periods of time, and I'm talking about not just days or weeks, but decades, locked away by themselves in solitary cells.

PERIES: Bernadette, give us a sense of the research that had been done on the ineffectiveness of solitary confinement and the emotional and psychological--of course, the social dimensions of all of this.

RABUY: Right. Well, I think, just thinking about it from a human perspective, what it would be like to be isolated for 22 hours [inaud.] per day in a very small space. It should come to no surprise that that has very damaging mental health effects for the people who oftentimes already are facing mental health challenges, and sometimes as President Obama says in his op-ed in the Washington Post, sometimes even triggers new mental health problems for people in solitary.

So the research says that. We have psychiatrists all throughout the country who have spoken out about, on solitary confinement and those damaging effects it can have on mental health.

PERIES: Alan, of course President Obama, his new policy announcements that only affect the federal prison system. How likely is it that these reforms will also be adopted by the state level?

MILLS: You're right, the specific reforms that he announced relate to--only control what happens in the federal prison system. However, included in the federal prison system are also, and also covered by his orders, are any facility the United States Marshall's Service keeps people in, and that includes a lot of county jails throughout the country. So to the extent that it controls the way they adopt solitary for federal prisoners, it's likely to trickle down and affect people who are not federal prisoners.

Frankly, also the federal government sets the standard, sets a model that is adopted by states all over the country. The federal government started this move toward solitary confinement when it used Marion prison here in Illinois as an all-lockdown facility, and then built the one in [Florence]. So the federal government started this process, and I think the federal government is doing the right thing by taking the lead in unwinding this process.

PERIES: And Bernadette, getting on how you think moving forward--I mean, the president is obviously making a breakthrough here. However, we are looking at a new leadership, and the election, and how do you think the candidates running for election should stand on this issue, and what is the best reform that we could be advocating for as voters?

RABUY: Well, I think though this is a really positive step, I think we really need to start looking at solitary confinement in general. So including the use of solitary confinement for adults. We have heard from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture solitary confinement beyond 15 days is, in fact, torture. So I think the United States really needs to think about that, and really consider reforms and ending the use of solitary confinement for prolonged periods for adults, as well as juveniles.

PERIES: And Alan, what should voters take into consideration moving forward on this issue?

MILLS: Well, I think, I think voters--it's very important for voters not to just take the attitude that many people have taken in the past, saying that any time a candidate says 'tough on crime', you say great, I'm all for it. I think hard questions need to be asked of candidates at every level, all the way from city officials, all the way up to the president, as to what are you going to do about the number of people that we are incarcerating? How are we going to reduce that number?

There is a bipartisan consensus growing that we lock up too many people for too long, including use of solitary. So I think that voters need to ask those questions of every elected official they come into contact with, write letters to the editor. All of that furthers the public conversation so that people who are running for office can no longer just yell and scream about tough on crime, and that's all they have to say.

PERIES: All right. Alan, Bernadette, I thank you so much for joining us today.

MILLS: You're very welcome.

PERIES: Take care.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


Our automatic spam filter blocks comments with multiple links and multiple users using the same IP address. Please make thoughtful comments with minimal links using only one user name. If you think your comment has been mistakenly removed please email us at

latest stories

Corbyn Allies in Labour Attacked For Supporting Palestinian Struggle
Kochs and ALEC Behind Criminalization of Dissent Bills in Five States
West's Anti-Russian Fervor Will Help Putin Win Election On Sunday
Stephen Hawking: Fighter for Progressive Politics
Paul Jay: Threats facing Humanity, Russiagate & the Role of Independent Media
Corbyn Smeared as 'Russian Stooge' for Requesting Evidence on Poisoned Spy
Chief in Charge of Internal Affairs To Retire from Baltimore Police
Corbyn Calls for Evidence in Escalating Poison Row
Sanders Resolution Against War in Yemen Challenged by Mattis
Senate Expands 'Lobbyist Bill' to Deregulate Real Estate
Expressions of Afro-Asian Solidarity during the Cold War
Economic Benefits of Tax Cuts Should Have Arrived - Where Are They?
Trump's Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Is Another World Possible? - Leo Panitch on RAI (4/4)
Students Demand Leaders Address the Root Causes of Gun Violence
Far-Right Ministers in Chile's New Government Placed in Sensitive Positions
Israeli Military Strangles Its Own Weapons Manufacturer to Privatize It
Not Without Black Women
Newly Tapped Sec of State Mike Pompeo Comes with Deep Ties to the Koch Brothers
The CIA's New Torturer-in-Chief
Anti-Pipeline Indigenous 'Mass Mobilization' Has Begun
UN Rapporteur: US Sanctions Cause Death in Venezuela
Colombia's Conservatives Make Gains in Congress Vote Amid Fraud Allegations
Wilkerson: Trump Won't Make Peace with North Korea
The Rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Class Struggle in the UK Labour Party - RAI with Leo Panitch (3/4)
Western Governments Whitewash Saudi Dictator MBS as 'Reformer'
US Cowardice Prevents Middle East Peace
Should China Maintain its Non-interference Policy toward Africa?
Bills to Ban Styrofoam and Crude Oil Terminals Pass Baltimore City Council
Elites Impose Education Policies They Would Never Accept for their Children,, The Real News Network, Real News Network, The Real News, Real News, Real News For Real People, IWT are trademarks and service marks of Independent World Television inc. "The Real News" is the flagship show of IWT and The Real News Network.

All original content on this site is copyright of The Real News Network. Click here for more

Problems with this site? Please let us know

Web Design, Web Development and Managed Hosting