In January President Obama announced that federal prisons would no longer use solitary confinement to punish juvenile offenders and adults who have committed minor offenses. The practice leads to “devastating, lasting psychological consequences,” declared the President, after a Justice Department study concluded that the practice reduces the chances of successful rehabilitation upon an inmate’s release. Solitary confinement has been “increasingly overused…with heartbreaking results,” said Obama. It should be “limited, applied with constraints and used only as a measure of last resort.”
This announcement was a good start, but in America up to 100,000 adult prisoners are currently confined in solitary, many of them in supermax federal and state prisons that operate in total secrecy: No visitors, journalists or independent inspectors are allowed to see what goes on inside. As in any institution operating in darkness (the CIA, for instance), abuse and rogue operators can flourish. Many European countries allow independent inspectors into their prisons, and this helps to keep the institutions honest.