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Report: BOP Fails to Monitor Effects, Conditions of Segregated Housing

In May, 2013, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report critical of the federal Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) use of segregated housing. The report found that the percentage of prisoners held in segregated housing, including Special Housing Units (SHUs), Special Management Units (SMUs) and Administrative Maximum (ADX), had increased 17% over the past five years from 10,659 to 12,460, while the BOP's overall population had increased 6% in the same time period.

BOP prisoners held in segregated housing are generally confined to their cells for 23 hours per day, for indeterminate lengths of time.

The GAO criticized the BOP for failing to consistently manage or implement its regulations uniformly from institution to institution and for not having adequate controls in place to address what the GAO termed "document deficiencies." The BOP was unable to show that it provided "minimum conditions of confinement and procedural protections" for segregated prisoners, or that it had implemented adequate computer systems to monitor its compliance with written procedures for segregated housing.

Human rights activists have long advocated the abolition of most forms of segregation based upon studies that show prolonged isolation "may have an adverse effect on the overall mental status of some individuals." [See, e.g., PLN, Oct. 2012, p.1]. The BOP has acknowledged that it has no data regarding the psychological effects of such isolation, but stated as of January 2013 that it plans to study segregated housing and is "considering conducting mental health case reviews for inmates held in SHUs or ADX for more than 12 continuous months." Additionally, the BOP began using a new software program to "document conditions of confinement in SHUs and SMUs."

The GAO also noted that the BOP, although claiming that segregated housing enhances the protection of prisoners, staff and the general public, "cannot determine the extent to which segregated housing achieves its stated purpose." SHUs are generally used for shorter-term stays for disciplinary or administrative reasons, SMUs are often used to transition prisoners to a lower-level security and ADX units provide the highest level of security for allegedly more dangerous prisoners.

The GAO made several recommendations for the correction of the problems it identified in its report, including "(1) develop ADX-specific monitoring requirements; (2) develop a plan that clarifies how BOP will address documentation concerns GAO identified, through the new software program; (3) ensure that any current study to assess segregated housing also includes reviews of its impact on institutional safety; and (4) assess the impact of long-term segregation."

What stands out in the report is the lack of apparent concern on the part of the BOP – and by extension the Justice Department, Attorney General and the executive branch of the federal government – for the more than 12,400 federal prisoners who are confined in segregation. In an era where many states, including Illinois and Maine among others, are phasing out segregated housing, the BOP has increased the number of prisoners held in segregation units.

David Fathi, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, is especially critical of the use of segregation. "It's astonishing that the [BOP] has steadily increased its use of solitary confinement and other segregated housing while failing to assess whether this expensive and inhumane practice has any actual effect on prison safety. The Bureau needs to follow the lead of the growing number of states that have reduced solitary confinement while preserving prison safety and saving millions of dollars in the process."

Left unaddressed by the GAO report is the incalculable psychological damage being inflicted on BOP prisoners held in segregation, and the human and financial costs stemming from their confinement in segregated housing.

Sources: "Improvements Needed in Bureau of Prisons' Monitoring and Evaluation of Impact of Segregated Housing," Government Accountability Office (May 1, 2013);

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