An October 15, 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), covering the time period from 2011-12 – the most recent period for which statistics are available – indicated that on an average day, “up to 4.4 percent of state and federal inmates and 2.7 percent of jail inmates were held in administration segregation or solitary confinement.” Compiled from data taken from the National Inmate Survey, those figures were up only slightly from the prior survey, which covered 2008-09.
According to the BJS report, “nearly 20 percent of prison inmates and 18 percent of jail inmates had spent time in restrictive housing” at some point during their incarceration.
“Restrictive housing” is a term generally applied to solitary confinement and other forms of segregation that result in prisoners being held in their cells for 22-23 hours per day. The report also revealed that various categories of prisoners were much more likely than others to be confined in restrictive housing.
BJS statistician Allen J. Beck noted that “younger inmates, inmates without a high school diploma, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual inmates were more likely to have spent time in restrictive housing than older inmates, inmates with a high school diploma or more, and heterosexual inmates. Inmates held for a violent offense other than a sex offense and inmates with extensive arrest histories or prior incarcerations were more likely to have spent time in restrictive housing.”
Also noteworthy was the fact that “29 percent of prison inmates and 22 percent of jail inmates with current symptoms of serious psychological distress” had been held in restrictive housing during the time period covered by the report.
It should come as no surprise that correctional facilities with higher rates of prisoners held in segregation had “higher levels of facility disorder; lower levels of inmate trust and confidence in staff; higher concentrations of violent inmates (other than sex offenders) and inmates with longer criminal histories....”
Prisoners who were asked to comment on perceived reasons for high levels of restrictive housing cited conditions of confinement, and more specifically overcrowding in housing units. Overcrowding increased tensions, put additional pressure on staff to maintain order and thus often led to more prisoners being placed in restrictive housing.
In November 2016, the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) issued a joint report detailing the state of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Through the gathering of data from state and federal corrections agencies nationwide, the report found that as of mid-2015 there were at least 67,442 prisoners held in solitary, inclusive of those in “double-cell-solitary,” meaning two prisoners under lockdown in the same cell.
The Liman report also found that certain states had a greater affinity for solitary confinement than others. Louisiana, Utah and Nebraska all reported that more than 10 percent of their prisoner populations were held in solitary. All others fell, to varying degrees, bellow the ten percent level.
While Texas reported that less than ten percent of its prisoner population was in solitary confinement, the state took top billing in the report for the use of protracted segregation. According to the report, Texas held more than 1,000 prisoners in solitary for six years or more.
Across the board, the Liman report noted racial disparities in solitary populations, with black males being confined at rates higher than their proportion of the overall prison populations.
Yet there are some signs of hope on the horizon. For example, while Utah was a leading state in terms of solitary confinement, it has reportedly been taking steps to significantly reduce its solitary population. Utah has not been alone in those efforts; other states, including Colorado and New York, have reduced the number of prisoners in segregation. [See: PLN, Nov. 2016, p.40; July 2014, p.1].
“The official position of so many jurisdictions now is that they want less solitary,” said report co-author and Yale Law School professor Judith Resnik. “The people closest to running prisons are telling us this is not a wise thing to do for the safety and well-being of prisoners, or the safety of staff and the communities to which they’ll return.”
This shift in sentiment regarding solitary confinement has not been isolated to state prison systems. The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is responsible for the nation’s largest prison population, and in a report released in January 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that the BOP had reduced its solitary population by nearly 25 percent since January 2012.
The report, titled “Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing,” was the culmination of a request President Obama had made of then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to review “the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons.”
The DOJ was clear in its findings. As stated in a summary of the report, “After extensive study, we have concluded that there are occasions when correctional officials have no choice but to segregate inmates from the general population, typically when it is the only way to ensure the safety of inmates, staff, and the public. But as a matter of policy, we believe strongly this practice should be used rarely, applied fairly, and subject to reasonable constraints....”
The summary continued, “The stakes are high. Life in restrictive housing has been well-documented by inmates, advocates, and correctional officials. In some systems, the conditions can be severe; the social isolation, extreme. At its worst, and when applied without regard to basic standards of decency, restrictive housing can cause serious, long-lasting harm. It is the responsibility of all governments to ensure that this practice is used only as necessary – and never as a default solution.”
The DOJ report made several recommendations intended to reduce the use of restrictive housing and mitigate its harmful effects. Some of the more substantive recommendations included a complete end to the placement of juveniles in solitary, as well as an expansion of the BOP’s ability to divert prisoners with serious mental illness to treatment programs. Currently, the BOP is facing a lawsuit over the placement of mentally ill prisoners in segregation at the ADX Florence supermax in Colorado. [See: PLN, Nov. 2015, p.1; Dec. 2013, p.36].
Among other things, the report also called for the diversion of prisoners in protective custody to less restrictive forms of housing, as well as a prohibition on the placement of prisoners in solitary confinement (where possible) during their final half-year of imprisonment; those placed in segregation during that timeframe would be offered “reentry programming.”
Finally, the report recommended that the BOP enhance transparency by gathering and making public monthly data related to its restrictive housing statistics.
Slowly, a consensus is building to curtail the use of solitary confinement – a practice that the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture if placement in segregation lasts longer than 15 days. [See: PLN, Oct. 2012, p.1].
Sources: “Use of Restrictive Housing in U.S. Prisons and Jails, 2011-12,” DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics (October 2015); “Report and Recommendations Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing,” DOJ (Jan. 2016); www.themarshallproject.org; www.theweek.com; www.justice.gov
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