WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Barack Obama has announced a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, citing the "heartbreaking" case of a teenager who spent two years in solitary after stealing a backpack and later killed himself.
Mr Obama, who is pushing to reform America's overcrowded and expensive correctional system before the end of his presidency, wants to cut the number of people incarcerated, curb the use of solitary confinement, and end mandatory minimum sentences.
In an op-ed in the Tuesday (Jan 26) issue of The Washington Post, posted online late Monday, the president said placing juvenile prisoners in solitary confinement is used too frequently and can have terrible psychological effects.
He announced executive actions that also ban corrections officials from dumping prisoners responsible for "low-level infractions" in solitary.
Mr Obama's reforms are expected to affect about 10,000 inmates. He said he hoped they serve as a model for US states to rethink their rules.
"How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people?" the president wrote.
"It doesn't make us safer. It's an affront to our common humanity."
In his opinion piece, Mr Obama details the case of Mr Kalief Browder, who in 2010, aged 16, was accused of stealing a backpack and was sent off to the notorious Rikers Island prison complex in New York to await trial.
"He reportedly endured unspeakable violence at the hands of inmates and guards - and spent nearly two years in solitary confinement," Mr Obama wrote.
Mr Browder was released in 2013 having never stood trial but struggled to cope with the trauma of being locked up all alone for 23 hours each day. He killed himself at the age of 22.
"Solitary confinement gained popularity in the United States in the early 1800s and the rationale for its use has varied over time," Mr Obama wrote.
"Today, it's increasingly overused on people such as Kalief, with heartbreaking results."
According to Mr Obama, as many as 100,000 people are held in solitary confinement in US prisons, including juveniles and the mentally ill.
Mr Obama made his announcement after the Justice Department completed a review of the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.
Nearly a quarter of the world's prison population is concentrated in American jails. However, the United States accounts for less than 5 per cent of the world's population.
Black and Latino Americans represent 60 per cent of the US prison population while around 30 per cent of prisoners are white.
With these "sweeping changes," Mr Obama "has added the full weight" of the US government "to the movement to end our jails and prisons' addiction to solitary and its cruelty", wrote Mr David Fathi, an official with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the leading US civil rights group.
"We have lost too many to a punishment that hurts us all," Mr Fathi wrote in a statement.