Federal Prisons Still Putting Mentally Ill in Solitary

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Federal prisons keep some mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours a day, sometimes for years, says a new report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, the Wall Street Journal reports. The study was issued 18 months after the Obama administration hailed new restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for federal inmates, including the mentally ill, as a model for state correctional facilities. Former President Obama barred solitary confinement for the handful of juveniles in federal prison and called the excessive or unnecessary isolation of adult inmates “an affront to our common humanity.” Federal investigators found a wide disconnect between policy and practice, supporting longstanding complaints by civil-rights activists that some prisons amount to human warehouses. Cumulative time in solitary confinement isn’t tracked, and many mentally ill inmates are receiving insufficient treatment or none at all, the report said.

One prison psychologist described solitary confinement this way: “You have no contact, you don’t speak to anybody and it’s a form of torture, on some level.” Federal prison officials agreed with all 15 of the audit’s recommendations, which included clear policies for solitary confinement, tracking of cumulative time in single cells, and careful monitoring of the mentally ill. Amid a national debate over the economic and social costs of incarceration, a number of states have reduced their use of solitary confinement. Colorado, Maine and Pennsylvania, for example, have barred the practice for inmates with serious mental illness in state prisons. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie vetoed legislation last year that would have allowed solitary confinement only as a last resort and not at all for the mentally ill. In one of the audit’s notable findings about federal inmates, only three percent receive regular treatment for mental illness, though a recent study said the proportion with a history of mental health problems is about 19 percent.

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