A Call to Reform Federal Solitary Confinement: Paper

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Photo by Hasan Almasi via Unsplash.

The current solitary confinement data released on the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) website is insufficient, and the lack of transparency rings alarm bells, according to a new paper released Wednesday by Right On Crime, a national conservative justice reform campaign of the Texas Public Policy Foundation as part of their series of installments regarding federal prison reform. 

The report, A Call to Reform Federal Solitary Confinement, was authored by Texas Public Policy Foundation Policy Scholars Ilanit Turner and Noelle Collins, who begin their report by writing, “Federal solitary confinement is in desperate need of repair.”

Federally, solitary confinement use has continued to grow, despite the overwhelming evidence of the physical and mental damages that it inflicts on inmates in the prison system. 

Moreover, recidivism rates continue to remain unchanged even after inmates are released back in to general population, the Right on Crime researchers details. 

“Federal solitary confinement is in desperate need of repair, and we are seeing a growing bipartisan consensus for reform,” said Right On Crime Executive Director and former U.S. attorney, Brett Tolman regarding the report. “While brief periods of isolation may occasionally be necessary to maintain the safety of inmates and staff, how we treat them behind bars often reflects their behavior when they are released into our communities.”

Federal Solitary Confinement

In 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons acquired the Thomson Correctional Center as the newest federal prison, built with the capability of housing 1,600 inmates in some form of isolated confinement.

More recently, the Right on Crime researchers tracked federal prison statistics through August 2021 and found that over the course of the month, federal prisons averaged 9,655 inmates in Special Housing Units (about 7.4 percent of the total inmate population). 

Of these 9,655 individuals, an average of 8,251 were held in administrative detention units, while 1,414 were held in disciplinary segregation, the report details. 

The researchers also found that on average in federal facilities, 8,536 inmates were in solitary housing for 90 days or less, 1,182 were in solitary housing for more than 90 days, 324 were in solitary for more than 180 days, and 44 were in solitary housing for more than a year.

This amount of time isolated can have detrimental effects on someone’s mental health, as many prisoners in federal administrative maxim facilities have been noted to wail, scream, and bang on the walls of their cells while mutilating their bodies with whatever objects they can find. Others have been documented to swallow dangerous objects, while suicide attempts are common. 

These details are confirmed by a previously confined prisoner who was cited by Prison Legal News from the lawsuit filed on behalf of the prisoner and five others who sued the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in June 2012. Their lawsuit alleged “systemic mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners” that advocates believe still continues to this day. 

See Also: Solitary Confinement Blamed for Mental Illness and Death: Report

Solutions to the Federal Problem

The authors begin by writing recommendations to end solitary confinement at the federal level detailing that we need to change the system “that is hidden from public view.” In other words, there needs to be a reinvigorated push to have the Bureau of Prisons and the Department of Justice share data and behave transparently. 

To add a contextual example to this solution, the authors detail how, “Among the roughly 4,500 inmates with pending hearings or investigations, the BOP fails to provide any detail on the severity of the violation.” 

Moreover, the veil is pulled over our eyes continually, noting that the BOP details that “Another 470 inmates are in solitary confinement for reasons that have yet to be determined at all, their classification is “pending” (although it is unclear whether that means the classification of the inmate or the conduct itself is “pending”).”

This lack of transparency, the Right on Crime researchers write, is unacceptable. 

The researchers also advocate for meaningful due process in solitary placement, as well as ongoing review, considering inmates have limited rights to due process and rarely have their cases reviewed despite complaints or situational circumstances. 

To make these solutions even more impactful, the report details the importance of expanding programming and privileges for those in solitary, considering isolation for 23 hours a day draws a blurry line between equitable punishment and inhumane treatment. 

In an attempt to incentivize improved behavior, the Department of Justice made recommendations in 2016 to have programs like “recreation, education, clinically appropriate treatment therapies, skill-building, and social interaction with staff and other inmates” while still in solitary.

The researchers note that while these are great moves towards reform, the lack of transparency has made it difficult to see the degree to which such changes have been adhered to. 

Lastly, the Right on Crime researchers note that a top priority for reform must be to improve protocols to prevent suicides, violence, and corruption. 

“The 2019 apparent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein presents one of the most recent damning cases of administrative negligence,” the writes note, and add that the BOP should provide an account of what has been done to avoid suicides and violence in the future.

“For years, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has advocated for solitary confinement reform,” the researchers concluded. 

“Perhaps the Federal Bureau of Prisons could take a page from the Clintonian handbook of making an unfavorable, last resort policy ‘safe, legal, and rare.’ In doing so, they can reinforce the last iota of liberty of those who ostensibly have nothing left to lose.”

The full report, A Call to Reform Federal Solitary Confinement, can be accessed at the link provided.

Additional Reading: Are Prisoners with Mental Illness Targeted for Solitary Confinement?

Andrea Cipriano is Associate Editor of The Crime Report

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