A long-awaited audit of the use of solitary and other forms of isolated confinement in the federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) recommends minor reforms while affirming the overall legitimacy and efficacy of a system that holds more than 10,000 people in extreme isolation.
At 242 pages in length, the Federal Bureau of Prisons: Special Housing Unit Review and Assessment provides a wealth of detail (though relatively little quantitative data), and a number of obvious, highly circumscribed findings. It notes inadequacies in mental health care and “reentry preparedness” for people in isolated confinement, and criticizes the BOP for some inefficiencies and inconsistencies in its policies and practices. But as an overall critique of solitary in the federal system, it is vastly inferior to an earlier report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that the BOP did not know whether its use of “segregated housing” had any impact on prison safety, how it affected the individuals who endure it, or how much it all cost American taxpayers.
The nature of the assessment should surprise no one. While it describes itself as “an independent, outside review,” the audit was commissioned in 2013 by the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the BOP, and carried out by a CNA, a large defense contractor with a sideline in corrections. As stated in the report on the audit, “The CNA project team was composed of eight former state correctional system directors, four former deputy correctional system directors, two psychiatrists, and two PhD-level criminal justice system researchers. All team members had substantial experience in the management and evaluation of restrictive housing units.”
In November 2013, as the audit got underway, the leaders of this team met with representatives of advocacy organizations working on the issue of solitary confinement, including the ACLU, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, CURE, Vera Institute for Justice, National Association for Mental Illness, and Prison Fellowship. According to individuals present at that meeting, the organizations expressed their hope that they would remain in touch throughout the audit. But they were offered no further opportunities for consultation and received no response to subsequent requests to give input.
Submitted to the BOP in December but released to the public only last Thursday, the report reveals a fatal flaw in the first of its “key findings”: “The general conditions of confinement in restricted housing units are consistent with national regulations and standards.” In other words, the audit used as its measuring stick the “national standards” of a country that is an extreme outlier when it comes to the use of long-term solitary confinement, which is rare in the rest of the developed world and has been denounced by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and a host of human rights groups.
In the end, the audit measures the BOP largely against itself. Taking as its baseline 2011, the first year for which complete data on “segregation populations” was available, the report notes a 31 percent drop those populations. The biggest drop was in the Special Housing Units (SHUs) used largely for disciplinary confinement, and is based on a “self-reported estimate” from the BOP.
As of June 2014, 10,747 people remained in isolated confinement in the Bureau’s SHUs, Special Management Units (SMUs), and at the Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility in Florence, Colorado, which holds prisoners in the most extreme isolation (and where CNA was banned from interviewing the most severely isolated individuals). This figure comprises one in twenty prisoners of the people in BOP custody.
In another section, the report compares the number of disciplinary violations committed by prisoners “Before” being placed in isolation with those committed “During and After” isolation. The results, unsurprisingly, show that people being held in concrete cells for 23 hours a day are less likely to commit infractions, some of the most common of which are “refusing to obey order” and “engaging in sex acts.” It does not question the usefulness of placing people in isolation to begin with for reasons such as these.
As for the impact of solitary on the people who endure it, the study relies on interviews with a “representative” sampling of individuals held at the facilities studied, some of whom were questioned in the presence of staff. There is little reference to the growing body of evidence showing the permanent damage to the brain caused by periods of isolation, or the panoply of symptoms displayed by people in solitary, even those without a history of mental illness. There is no reference to the men at ADX who, according to a current lawsuit, “interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects.” In fact, the report finds inconclusive the charge that solitary worsens mental illness, and that it increases rather than decreases prison violence.
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts. • Mic published an article entitled, “The Horrifying Truth of Life in Solitary Confinement From People Who Lived It.” • According to Mother Jones, those incarcerated at Willacy County Correctional Center […]
The following account is by Nicole Natschke, who is currently held in the segregation unit at Illinois’s Logan Correctional Facility, about three hours south of Chicago. Logan was repurposed from a men’s prison to imprison women from the shuttered Dwight and Lincoln Correctional Centers. The prison, which has a rated capacity of 1,106, currently holds 1,950 […]
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts. • The New York Times magazine published an article entitled The Shame of Solitary Confinement, which focuses on what’s happening in one Southern state. “Solitary — in theory, a punishment for […]
Ashley Smith was just 19 when she died in her solitary confinement cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, in October 2007. As she had many times before, Smith tied a ligature around her neck and tightened it. For twenty long minutes, a crowd of prison guards stood watch from outside […]
What does solitary confinement have to do with reproductive justice? Quite a lot, says a new report about reproductive health care in New York’s women’s prisons. The Correctional Association of New York, a criminal justice policy and advocacy organization, released Reproductive Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons. […]
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts. • Last year, the Ohio Department of Youth Services decreased its use of segregation by two-thirds, according to a report released by the state’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee. The changes […]
Jacob Barrett is an Oregon state prisoner who was transferred to Florida and has been held for years in “Close Management,” or solitary confinement, most recently at Florida State Prison in Raiford. On February 1, Barrett began a hunger strike not only against the conditions he himself has endured, but also against the rampant abuses […]
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) have released a report arguing that “solitary confinement is dangerous, expensive and makes Texas less safe.” In A Solitary Failure: The Waste, Cost and Harm of Solitary Confinement, through surveys, in-person interviews, and corroborative research conducted over an eight-month period, the […]
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts. • The American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project released a report on the use of the solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. According to the report, Texas […]
Lexy is a 36-year-old transgender woman who was recently released from New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) custody after about two and a half years inside. She spent three months in solitary confinement in “the Box” — first at Watertown, then at Midstate — after a can lid was found under her bed. She says that the […]
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts. • The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has filed as lawsuit against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC), after it failed to provide documents or status updates in relation to […]