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Report Critical of BOP’s Solitary Confinement Policy for Mentally Ill Prisoners

by Derek Gilna

In July 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report highly critical of the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) policy of confining mentally ill prisoners in Restrictive Housing Units (RHUs). The report detailed not only the failure of the BOP to properly treat prisoners with mental health conditions, but also its apparent inability to even determine which offenders are mentally ill.

According to the Marshall Project, an independent criminal justice news agency, “Even at a most basic level, the [BOP] does not seem to know how much of its population is in need of mental treatment.... The bureau has released various estimates that can be contradicted just months later by its own staff.”

As noted by the OIG, “As of June 2016, of the 148,227 sentenced inmates in the BOP’s 122 institutions, 9,749 inmates (7 percent) were housed in its three largest forms of RHU: Special Housing Units (SHU) in 111 institutions; 2 Special Management Units (SMU) at the U.S. Penitentiaries (USP) in Lewisburg and Allenwood, Pennsylvania; and the USP Administrative Maximum Security Facility (ADX) in Florence, Colorado.”

Also confounding attempts to analyze the BOP’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners held in RHUs was the fact that “BOP guidance and policies do not clearly define ‘restrictive housing’ or ‘extended placement.’Although the BOP states that it does not practice solitary confinement, or even recognize the term,” the report said, “we found inmates, including those with mental illness, who were housed in single-cell confinement for long periods of time, isolated from other inmates and with limited human contact.”

In a 2006 report, the DOJ had previously documented the high percentage of federal prisoners with a history or symptoms of mental health problems – comprising about 45 percent of the BOP’s population. However, that study revealed only 3 percent of federal prisoners were “being treated regularly for mental illness.”

A BOP fiscal year 2016 Performance Budget Congressional submission claimed that 19 percent of mentally ill prisoners were being treated. Unfortunately, the report continued, “We believe that the prevalence of mental illness throughout the BOP is likely underreported because institution staffs do not always document inmates’ mental health diagnoses.” Perhaps, the report stated, that was due to chronic shortages of psychologists and psychiatrists in the BOP, “which can also affect the continuity of care for inmates.”

The OIG made recommendations for improving the treatment of mentally ill prisoners held in RHUs, which included establishing a policy for prisoners in single-cell confinement to receive treatment, establishing a policy for tracking such prisoners, ensuring that all data regarding prisoners’ mental health are entered into the BOP’s Electronic Medical Record System and Psychology Data System, and closely monitoring RHUs for compliance with accepted medical practices for mental health care. 

Sources: “Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Use of Restrictive Housing for Inmates with Mental Illness,” DOJ Office of the Inspector General (July 2017);;;

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