Can Obama set the US on the path to prison reform?

Can Obama set the US on the path to prison reform?

By Christopher Zoukis

A few weeks ago I wrote about the passing of a landmark revision to the United Nations’ “Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.” In it, I questioned why the United States, a key player in the revision process, had remained so quiet since the announcement, positing that the silence was in large part due to our complicity in violating dozens of the new standards outlined in the new “Mandela Rules.”

As of last night, the current administration appears prepared to challenge head-on at least one of the commonplace tortures routinely utilized in American prisons covered by the Rules: solitary confinement. (I do not use the term “torture” loosely, nor do the myriad researchers who have looked into the psychological effects of this practice, or the United Nations’ experts on torture.) The President spoke yesterday to the NAACP’s annual convention and stated that he has ordered the Department of Justice to review the use of solitary confinement, however the scope and focus of such an investigation are details yet to be revealed. 

The last time a detailed census of the use of solitary confinement in the country was undertaken, it was revealed that more than 80,000 inmates were confined to “restricted housing.” The DOJ has not released any further confinement data since the study ten years ago, and most critics believe this number dramatically underestimated the scope of the problem.

The contents of this speech appear to be part of his push for a pro-prison reform agenda as he enters the final leg of his presidency as this recent speech came on the heels of commuting the sentences of 46 federal prisoners convicted of non-violent crimes.

In addition to expressing concerns over the practice of solitary confinement Obama expanded the discussion to examining a number other issues related to the “justness” of our criminal justice system. He, just as many of those incarcerated do—myself included—acknowledged that there are individuals who need to be confined for lengthy periods, but that the rates of incarceration, along with mandatory minimum sentencing requirements are not producing the desired outcomes of a more just and productive society. Indeed, in recent days, he has taken to Twitter to cite many of the same statistics I and many others have written about, all of which highlight the counter-productivity of our current criminal justice and prison systems.  

Many critics of such reforms will suggest that we should be focusing instead on improving the conditions of “law-abiding” citizens. Yet what Obama has effectively highlighted is the fact that much of the $80 billion spent on our prisons could be spent on improving those conditions by reducing recidivism and working towards remedying the root causes of poverty and crime.  By targeting mandatory minimum sentencing, he is doing just that. Can anyone really argue that a child is better off having their parent taken away from their family for ten years over a minor drug possession? In whose best interests—other than the prison-industrial complex—is it to keep on forcing more and more prisoners into institutions of confinement?

What the President will achieve in this next year remains to be seen, but as always, the opening up of a dialogue on these issues is the first step in effecting change. But it also remains to be seen if this administration will broach the dozens of other principles outlined in the Mandela Rules that American prisons are actively violating; last night’s proclamations are only addressing the tip of the prisoners’ human rights iceberg.

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