Solitary confinement run amok

At a 2012 Senate hearing on solitary confinement, Anthony Graves, who was kept in isolation for a decade, described solitary as a system that was “literally driving men out of their minds. … No one can begin to imagine the psychological effects isolation has on another human being.”

Thanks to a new internal review commissioned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the public is now learning a lot more about the overuse and misuse of solitary confinement in the federal prison system.

Almost 9,000 inmates out of 212,283 were in isolation in BOP facilities in December 2014. Most of those inmates were in isolation for an average of 76 days (although certain “high security” detainees had been in isolation for an average of 1,376 days — almost four years).

While solitary is often portrayed as a disciplinary tool, in fact, only a small percentage (15 percent) of federal prisoners in isolation are being held for disciplinary reasons. The review authors found that a “disproportionate number” of inmates (1,369) were in protective isolation, and that those inmates were placed in conditions similar to those inmates in disciplinary custody: similar restrictions on movement, frequency of recreation, visitation and telephone access. In effect, those inmates were being punished for seeking protection.

{mosads}An even larger number of inmates were being isolated during the investigation of a rule infraction. At the time of the review, 4,252 inmates were in isolation because they were under investigation — 48 percent of all inmates in isolation. The review found that it was not unusual for inmates to spend over 30 days waiting for a hearing on the investigation — while states like Ohio require hearings no longer than seven days after an alleged rule violation.

The review authors were also particularly critical of how BOP addressed mental health concerns for people in isolation. Board-certified psychiatrists conducted independent mental health assessments of inmates in isolation and disagreed with BOP diagnoses in nearly two-thirds of the cases reviewed. They also found that the treatment offered by BOP was “insufficient or inappropriate” over half the time. Mistaken mental health diagnoses were undertaken by practitioners without training in psychiatry, courses of treatment prescribed were incorrect, mental health evaluations were cursory and insufficient, and mental health programming was deficient.

The review also pointed to “perfunctory” reviews of decisions to place inmates in isolation that “lacked substance”; a lack of consistency across federal prisons for classification of inmates in isolation; and limited reentry programming for people in isolation.

The report was not without its flaws. The review failed to look at isolation practices in the “H Unit” at the U.S. Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colo., which houses inmates under “special administrative measures.” These are special restrictions on contact with others imposed on the grounds of protecting national security or preventing disclosure of classified material. Human Rights Watch detailed the oppressive H Unit conditions in a 2014 report.

The review was also silent on solitary practices in 14 private facilities, including the Willacy County Correctional Facility in Texas, which holds immigrants slated for deportation pending the end of their prison sentence, and was a site of a major prison protest in February.

Nor did the review tackle the isolation of youth. While the vast majority of incarcerated youth are prosecuted by state authorities, the BOP does have custody over children (112 in 2013) and contracts with facilities to house them — facilities that allow for the prolonged isolation of youth. Human Rights Watch documented the emotional, social and psychological harms caused by prolonged isolation of youth in a 2012 report.

Nonetheless, there is no question that many of the concerns the report raised require immediate attention. Just last November, the U.N. Committee Against Torture recently urged the United States to limit its use of solitary confinement as a measure of last resort, for as short a time as possible, as well as to prohibit the use of solitary confinement for youth, persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, pregnant women, women with infants, and breastfeeding mothers.

BOP is isolating inmates incorrectly, too easily, for far too long and for the wrong reasons. Five percent of federal inmates are in some form of isolation. In some state correctional systems, including Mississippi and Colorado, the percentage of inmates in isolation was at 1 percent, without an adverse effect on facility safety.

BOP should follow suit and stop putting people in isolation so readily. Where BOP fails to do so, Congress should step in — it could start by banning prolonged isolation for youth and for people with mental disabilities. The path away from prisoner isolation is clear, and it’s time for BOP to start walking it.

Ginatta is the advocacy director for the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch.

Tags BOP Federal Bureau of Prisons Isolation Prison Solitary confinement UN UN Committee Against Torture United Nations
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