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Under Fire, the Federal Bureau of Prisons Audits its Use of Solitary Confinement - and Buys a New Supermax Prison

by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

Amidst growing criticism of its abundant use of solitary confinement, the federal Bureau of Prisons has quietly set in motion an “internal audit” to review its “restricted housing operations.” The audit, which has been contracted out to a Washington think tank and will be conducted largely by former corrections officials, seems unlikely to bring any dramatic change to the lives of the more than 12,000 people being held in isolation in the federal prison system. Meanwhile, the federal government has completed the purchase of a prison meant to house still more isolation cells.

The audit fulfils a pledge made by BOP director Charles Samuels last year, following Congress’ first and so far only hearing on solitary confinement. [See: PLN, October 2012, p.1]. At that hearing, convened by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, Samuels acknowledged under questioning that he didn’t know how many people with mental illness were in isolation in federal prisons, and was short on details about the BOP’s use of solitary confinement.

Since that time, controversy surrounding the BOP’s use of solitary has only grown. Current lawsuits are challenging the treatment of individuals with mental illness at ADX Florence, the notorious federal supermax prison in Colorado. [See: PLN, Nov. 2012, p.42]. Increased media coverage of ADX has uncovered horror stories of psychotic prisoners who gouge holes in their own flesh or eat their own feces, along with at least one suicide.

In addition, a scathing report last spring from the Government Accountability Office 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 costs American taxpayers. [See: PLN, Aug. 2013, p.15].

Yet when he testified before Congress again in September 2013, Charles Samuels discussed solitary confinement under the heading “Recent Innovations and Achievements.”

“[W]e are in the midst of making significant changes to our Special Housing Unit (SHU) policies and procedures,” Samuels told a House Judiciary subcommittee led by Republican chair George Sensenbrenner and ranking Democratic member Bobby Scott, during a hearing on oversight of federal prisons. “These changes will allow us to improve the efficiency of our SHU operations without compromising safety.”

In a statement that was permitted to stand without questioning from the committee members, Samuels asserted: “I have focused significant resources on the mental health of inmates who are placed in SHUs to ensure we are doing everything we can to work with these inmates.” (Samuels was the only witness invited to testify, though the ACLU submitted written testimony).

Samuels also said that in the past year the BOP had “decreased the number of inmates housed in SHU by 25 percent, primarily by focusing on alternative management strategies and alternative sanctions for inmates.” He cited no specific “alternative sanctions,” but did describe changes in the processing, tracking and reporting systems for disciplinary segregation.

When asked what had happened to the 25 percent of prisoners who had been removed from the SHUs, a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson had no concrete numbers but said that they either were put into general population, sent to state prisons or possibly dispatched to Special Management Units, or SMUs.

While individuals are sent to the SHU or the SMU for somewhat distinct reasons, the differences between the two types of units are negligible, with both confining inhabitants to their cells for 23 hours a day. A source with knowledge of the federal prison system told Solitary Watch that the use of SMUs has been growing since their genesis six years ago, and that shuffling prisoners from SHUs to SMUs might yield misleading statistics on the reduction of isolation in the BOP overall.

Samuels wrapped up his brief testimony on segregated housing by stating: “The National Institute of Corrections recently awarded a cooperative agreement for independent consultants to conduct a comprehensive review of our restricted housing operations and to provide recommendations for best practices. We look forward to the outcome of the evaluation as a source of even greater improvements to our operations.”

The National Institute of Corrections (NIC), which conducts research and develops programs, is in fact a part of the federal Bureau of Prisons, meaning that the agency is investigating itself. But the NIC has chosen, as it often does, to contract out the audit.

The BOP would not provide any details regarding the contract, suggesting that if we wanted them we would have to file a Freedom of Information Act request. But Shaina Vanek, the administrative officer at NIC, readily provided the information. The Special Housing Unit Review and Assessment, she said, was awarded to CNA Analysis and Solutions.

The audit will take a year to complete, with a literature search on segregation and inquiries into the operations of several prisons which have not yet been chosen. Overall, it is meant to take a look across a “broad spectrum,” according to Vanek, and to produce an analysis and recommendations for the future. The contract for the job is worth $498,211 – small potatoes as BOP contracts go, and not much to audit a practice that involves 7 percent of the federal prison population.

The work, which commenced in September 2013, will be headed up by Ken McGinnis, director of corrections programs for the company, whose “responsibilities have ranged from the management and administration of all facets of the Illinois and Michigan correctional systems to serving as warden and directing the operations of maximum, medium, and minimum-security adult institutions. He served as the chief administrative officer of two of the nation’s largest and most complex correctional systems.” Most recently he was involved in a CNA study meant to bring greater efficiency to the Colorado prison system.

CNA, a nonprofit which works for all levels of government, is best known as a military think tank. (It got its start during World War II when a group of MIT scientists investigated ways to repel U-boat attacks). Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, CNA has in recent years diversified into other fields, including air traffic management, energy and prisons.

Commissioning a study by CNA is a far cry from bringing in a reform-minded outfit like the Vera Institute for Justice, which is what several state prison systems have recently done in an effort to reduce their use of isolation. The audit may recommend incremental change by “reclassifying” a small number of isolated prisoners, but it is unlikely to produce any serious challenge to the use of solitary confinement.

Even as the BOP moves forward with the audit, other developments suggest that the federal government is planning to increase its use of certain forms of prison isolation. On October 1, 2013, as the government shutdown began, the Obama administration released $165 million in unobligated Justice Department funds to buy the Thomson Correctional Center from the state of Illinois. As Solitary Watch reported earlier this year, the government has plans to use the prison for segregated housing. Some portions of the facility will be designated as Administrative Maximum, or ADX, the most extreme type of isolation, and others will be SMUs.

The purchase was celebrated by two unlikely elected officials. Senator Dick Durbin, who held the Congressional hearing on solitary – and whose protégé Cheri Bustos represents the district that includes Thomson – told the local Rockford Register-Star: “I hope we’ll see before the end of the year the transfer of the prison to the federal government.” Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, who closed down the Tamms state supermax earlier this year, said at a news conference: “I want to thank President Obama and Senator Durbin for their strong support throughout this process. We look forward to Thomson being a fully operational facility that will drive major economic growth in the region in the near future.”

To carry out the sale, the administration had to make an end run around Virginia’s Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, who heads the House Appropriations Committee and refused to sign off on the purchase of the Thomson prison, where Republicans believe Obama will try to place detainees from Guantanamo.

Wolf, a longtime proponent of prison reform, has also joined with the Appropriations Committee’s ranking Democrat, Chaka Fattah, to float a bill that would launch a $1 million inquiry into BOP operations. The bill, which passed the full committee but has not yet gone to the floor, would establish and support the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, named for the Watergate conspirator turned prison evangelist and reformer. [Ed. Note: Colson died on April 21, 2012].

The nine-person task force would be charged with addressing “the challenges in the federal corrections system,” clearly with the aim of reducing the growth in both the population and cost of the BOP. But with a few exceptions (including, notably, current Prison Fellowship leader Pat Nolan), BOP critics on the right have shown little concern for the conditions in which federal prisoners actually live, including the use of solitary confinement.

This article was published by Solitary Watch ( on October 18, 2013, and is reprinted with permission.

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