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Obama Limits Solitary Confinement As Government Plans New Supermax Facility

President Barack Obama announced his administration will take action to limit the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons. The actions, determined by recommendations made by a Justice Department task force in July 2015, include a ban on the use of solitary confinement against juveniles and as a response to low-level infractions.

The administration will also seek to expand treatment for mentally ill prisoners and increase the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend out of their cells.

In an op-ed published by the Washington Post, Obama acknowledged research pointing to the “devastating, lasting psychological consequences” of solitary confinement, and studies showing isolation can “worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones.”

Calling the United States a “nation of second chances,” Obama noted the “experience of solitary confinement too often undercuts that second chance.” He cited the difficulties victims of isolation encounter on the outside in keeping jobs and maintaining meaningful relationships with family and community. “Imagine having served your time and then being unable to hand change over to a customer or look your wife in the eye or hug your children,” the president wrote.

The administration believes the action will affect around 10,000 federal prisoners in solitary confinement, and the president expressed hope his actions would “serve as a model for state and local corrections systems.”

However, this laudable use of executive power to limit solitary confinement in the federal prison system is tainted by the cynical choice to simultaneously convert a former state prison, the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois, into the second federal supermax facility in the nation—i.e., a facility that specializes in solitary confinement.

As journalist Aviva Stahl reported for Solitary Watch last year, the 2015 appropriations bill passed by Congress contained funding for the continued activation of Thomson prison. Stahl’s sources claim the B.O.P. plans to use Thomson to “add 1,500 Special Management Unit beds and 400 more Administrative Maximum-rated cells” to its books.

“The latter increase would double the number of people held in conditions of extreme isolation like those at ADX Florence,” the federal supermax facility in Colorado “that has been denounced by UN officials and human rights groups, and described by one former warden as a “clean version of hell”,” according to Stahl.

The Obama administration originally intended to use Thomson to house detainees from Guantánamo Bay but was blocked when Congress voted in 2010 to prohibit federal funds from being used to transfer those detainees to the United States. Justice Department officials instead set their sights on using the facility to alleviate overcrowding among its large population of inmates in high-security housing.

Thomson was a state supermax facility built in 2001 but never used due to budget cuts. The Justice Department purchased it in 2012 for $165 million. In February 2013, B.O.P. spokesperson Chris Burke indicated the government planned to use Thomson for high-security inmates, telling Mother Jones it would house inmates “with various security needs, including SMU and ADX type inmates.”

For the past few years, the government has been investigating its use of solitary confinement while reducing the number of inmates it holds in isolation. Yet, Burke told Mother Jones, “The reduction in our special housing unit population does not lessen the need for these beds.”

The Associated Press recently reported statements by local officials indicating the prison’s revival is moving apace. A hiring bump at the facility is “coinciding with increased interest from real estate developers who want to know about available land.”

The president of Thomson Village told reporters there was “more traffic from new workers and their families” in the blossoming supermax prison town. The B.O.P. stated there were 237 positions filled at Thomson and just over 100 minimum security inmates currently at the facility. The minimum security inmates arrived in July 2015.

In taking these actions, the Obama administration is not rebuking the use of solitary confinement. Rather, it is refining the government’s use of isolation while establishing new units specifically designed for solitary. There is no doubt intervening in the isolation of young people and the mentally ill is the right course of action. Yet, the intervention is designed to garner public trust before quietly expanding the use of solitary confinement in other troublesome ways.

Screenshot of PBS FRONTLINE interview with Thomas Tamm
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.