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Groups put pressure on Biden to fulfill campaign pledge to end solitary confinement

More than 130 civil rights and justice groups signed on to a letter calling on the Biden administration to "end the pain" of the practice in federal facilities.
Image: Exterior of an Illinois Federal Prison
The federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill.Steven Starr / Corbis via Getty Images file

Joe Biden agreed to overhaul parts of the country's prison system if he won the White House, with his presidential campaign pledging that he would "start by ending the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions."

After more than four months in office, it's time the president makes good on that promise, say more than 130 civil rights, religious, public health and criminal and social justice groups. They have signed a letter to the White House's Office of Public Engagement made public Monday calling on Biden to "end the pain, torture, and trauma of tens of thousands of people languishing in harsh and harmful conditions."

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Among them are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Innocence Project, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Promise of Justice Initiative.

The letter, which was provided to NBC News, offers several recommendations for ending solitary confinement on the federal level. It coincides with next-step suggestions compiled in a report published Monday by several civil rights and justice reform organizations, including the ACLU, the Vera Institute of Justice and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The proposals come in the wake of high-profile cases of solitary confinement in recent years, including those of a transgender woman, Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, who was found dead in her Rikers Island jail cell in New York City on June 7, 2019, and Kalief Browder, who died by suicide in June 2015 after he was released from Rikers, where he had spent two years in isolation as a teenager after he was accused of stealing a backpack.

Rikers is operated by the New York City Department of Correction, which plans to close the complex in the next five years and replace it with smaller jails. Reform advocates say the action has emphasized how issues such as solitary confinement remain troubling in federal facilities as well and must be addressed.

About 4.4 percent of inmates in state and federal facilities are in "restrictive housing," including solitary confinement, on an average day, according to 2015 Bureau of Justice statistics. Currently, more than 150,000 people are incarcerated on the federal level and 1.3 million in state facilities.

"There's a groundswell in the United States for change across the whole spectrum of the criminal justice system, and that includes how people are treated in carceral systems," said Tammie Gregg, deputy director of the ACLU's National Prison Project. "We feel like the moment is now, regardless of which administration is in place."

The groups' proposals include ensuring that people are not denied human interaction for hours on end and independent oversight of the system, as well as protection of special populations more susceptible to the effects of "involuntary lock-ins," including inmates under 25 or over 55, those with mental health and medical needs, pregnant women and those who identify as LGBTQ.

Gregg said Biden could direct the Justice Department, which oversees the federal prison system, and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration facilities, to comply.

The White House did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.

Correction officers' unions in states that have moved to revise solitary confinement rules have pushed back, arguing that the changes diminish accountability for prisoners and put the facilities' staff members at risk.

Advocates say they're particularly invigorated by how Biden has vowed to end solitary confinement in most cases, which they say deserves urgent action during the Covid-19 pandemic. Biden's campaign said rare exceptions allowing solitary confinement might include protecting a life.

A report in June 2020 by the advocacy campaign Unlock the Box found that solitary confinement in state and federal prisons grew from about 60,000 cases on any given day before the start of the pandemic to 300,000 during it. The increase, based on state and federal data, is a conservative estimate that doesn't include all people held in dormitories rather than cells or those in local jails or immigration or juvenile facilities.

Advocates say the rise can be attributed, in part, to people who may have been placed on lockdown or in solitary because of concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, which sickened thousands in prisons across the country.

Gregg said that it's also difficult to know how long those incarcerated are kept in solitary because of limited data and inadequate record keeping but that people are being placed into it for minor infractions and that some, in extreme cases, are isolated for decades. In addition, she said, facilities may not technically classify certain forms of isolation as solitary confinement, even if it's the same in practice.

"Ultimately, it's affecting mental health," Gregg said. "If we know at the end of the day the vast majority of people are released from jails and prisons and juvenile facilities, those who've spent countless days in solitary confinement have issues that aren't resolved, and they're coming out angry or still feeling isolated and aren't getting the treatment they need."

Johnny Perez, director of the U.S. prisons program at the nonprofit National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said the U.S. should adopt the United Nations' view that solitary confinement is the isolation of a person in a cell for 22 hours or more a day and that more than 15 consecutive days is a form of prolonged torture.

Perez, 42, who was placed in solitary confinement at Rikers when he was 16, said more cities and states are moving to address the ill effects associated with the practice. In April, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed a law that restricts prisons and jails from holding people in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days, following New Jersey, Colorado and other states.

But Perez said there's a greater reason that Biden needs to act: "If we're able to end solitary on the federal level, it would send a strong message that we are a country that does not torture its own citizens and that states also need to follow the president's lead."