Released from solitary: Landmark case must bring about prison reform in the US


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We knew that America’s justice system, and in particular its prisons, was one of the least attractive aspects of the world’s richest civilisation. With the largest penal population on the planet, often serving in dangerous and neglected conditions, America’s network of federal and state penitentiaries sometimes calls into question the nation’s very claim to be a civilised nation, along with routine use of the electric chair and an insane attitude towards gun control.

Having achieved so much social progress during his presidency – healthcare reform being the most vital – Barack Obama, by his own admission, has failed to make US prisons humane. What we did not perhaps know was that some inmates in American prisons have been kept for up to 30 years in solitary confinement. That, to use the famous words of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution, should count as a “cruel and unusual punishment”, and it is odd that so few challenges to it have been made.

But a landmark lawsuit settlement in California has led the state to reintroduce 2,000 inmates – kept in solitary because of their gang affiliations – back into the general population. The few states which still keep prisoners isolated for long periods because of their suspected gang ties rather than, say, violent conduct should follow suit. This cruel practice should be employed only where it is absolutely necessary for safety.

Not long ago, Mr Obama became the first sitting President to visit a federal prison. With America’s penal system as overcrowded and racially disproportionate as it is, the case for reform needs little explanation. Whether Mr Obama’s successor will have the stomach to pursue it is far less certain.