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Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Denies Use of Solitary Confinement in Testimony before Congress

by Christopher Zoukis

Numerous federal prisoners have voiced strong condemnations of the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Charles Samuels, after Samuels told a Senate committee that the BOP does not use solitary confinement at a hearing on August 4, 2015.  The inmates dispute Samuels' comments as false, and part of a continuing pattern of lies, corruption and misuse of public funds, all while treating large numbers of prisoners "like dogs," as one prisoner put it.

Giving sworn testimony as to the BOP's difficulties in operating its prisons on what he characterized as limited resources, Samuels told the committee, "We do not, under any circumstances, nor have we ever had the practice of putting an individual in a cell alone," when discussing the use of Special Housing Units (SHU), commonly described as "the Hole" by staff and prisoners alike. "We do not practice solitary confinement," he said under oath.

Samuels' comments on the subject angered some prisoners, and one accused the Director of committing perjury. "How can he get away with saying such a bald-face lie?" said Jay Martt, confined at FCI Terre Haute, IN. "All that one of the senators needs to do is subpoena any log-book from any SHU in the BOP and they could prosecute Director Samuels for lying to members of Congress." Speaking to, Martt quipped, "Reading what Samuels said was like watching Bill Clinton change the meaning of 'sexual relations' when he denied that Monica Lewinsky gave him head."

Samuels' testimony appears to fly in the face of the experiences of many prisoners and widely-circulated media reports on prisoners like Thomas Silverstein, who has spent several decades in solitary confinement, most of it at the notorious "ADX" federal supermax in Colorado. Silverstein recently lost a federal court suit claiming that the long-term isolation violated his Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment. Still, Samuels is well-known for not being up to speed when it comes to his knowledge of conditions in the BOP's many Special Housing Units and other enhanced isolation units. In 2014, Samuels, Director since 2011 and a BOP employee since 1988, could not tell a congressional committee how big the average cell was. At a hearing on solitary confinement before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Minnesota Senator Al Franken asked Samuels, "How big is an average cell in solitary? This is a human thing we're talking about. We've got a lot of statistics; how big is the cell?"

Unable to immediately answer the question, Samuels repeated asked Franken to clarify the question, inducing a frustrated Franken to turn to the gallery and ask, "Am I asking this wrong?" Finally, after about a minute, Samuels guessed that the average cell was six feet by four feet. He later revised his answer to twelve feet by seven feet.  At the time, ACLU National Prison Project Director David Fathi said, "It's disturbing that Director Samuels wasn't able to answer such a basic question about the Bureau's use of solitary confinement."

The Federal Bureau of Prisons operates on an annual budget of more than six billion dollars, housing more than 200,000 men, women, and children, and prisoners routinely accuse the agency of fostering an atmosphere that promotes corruption and abuse. Federal prisoner Dave Franklin said he recognizes that Samuels has a lot on his plate, but would love to see Samuels and his administrative heads mandate stricter staff compliance with policy, with stiffer repercussions for those who don't comply. "It's like this," Franklin said. "BOP staff do commonly lie and screw us inmates about everything. On a daily basis they falsify federal documents, whether it be for lying on an Incident Report to get us in trouble or saying that they held safety discussions when they never really did. They lie about making hourly rounds in the SHU. They lie about the quality of the food they serve us, or the number of rolls of toilet paper that they give us. They lie about the number of microwaves we are allowed, or the number of library books they order for us . . . It's just nonstop and I just wish it would stop."

Whether Samuels was indeed lying to Congress may never be the subject of a congressional inquiry. But in the minds of many of the prisoners he is charged with caring for, his credibility, and that of the Bureau of Prisons itself, is non-existent.