Durbin: First-Of-Its-Kind Report On Solitary Confinement Shows Need For More Improvement

Durbin requested BOP review in 2013 after chairing second hearing on the human rights, fiscal and public safety consequences of solitary confinement

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] - U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) today said that the first-ever assessment of federal segregation policies, which he requested in 2013, has prompted the Bureau of Prisons to review and improve some of its standards, but there is considerably more work to be done.  Durbin asked for the independent assessment of solitary confinement in federal prisons following a 2012 hearing he chaired on the human rights, fiscal and public safety consequences of solitary confinement. A copy of the report is available here.

“In a meeting with Director Samuels yesterday, we discussed an important development in the Bureau of Prisons’ ongoing efforts to evaluate its treatment of prisoners held in segregation,” Durbin said. “Though improvements have been made – most importantly in the declining number of inmates in solitary confinement – there is still much more work to be done. The independent report released by the BOP today will inform our next steps as we move towards meaningful reform of solitary confinement practices in our prisons. I commend Director Samuels for agreeing to undergo this assessment, and for his commitment to continuing to reform BOP’s solitary confinement policies and practices. The fact remains that the United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world. The findings and recommendations of this report provide further evidence that we must fundamentally reform our approach to solitary confinement.”

The report found that overall, the Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) segregation policies were largely used in a manner consistent with appropriate regulations and standards. The report also found that the number of individuals held in solitary confinement – both in actual terms and as a percentage of the total prison population – has steadily declined in recent years.


However, the report also identified several areas where operational and policy improvements are needed, including:


  • Mental health care for individuals in segregation: The report found that BOP should take steps to improve diagnoses, offer more effective treatment, and hire additional psychiatric staff in order to enhance mental health services in restricted housing. As has been previously established, a large percentage of the prison population held in solitary confinement suffer from mental illness – which may either predate their segregation or develop because of it. The report recommends a complete review of all inmates currently assigned to segregated housing in order to identify those who would be better served in a secure mental health facility.


  • The segregation of inmates in protective custody: BOP does not have adequate alternatives to segregation for individuals who require or have requested protection from other inmates. As a result, particularly vulnerable populations – such as LGBT individuals or children – are often subjected to solitary confinement in order to protect them from the general population of inmates. The report recommends that BOP establish a separate housing option for inmates in protective custody.


  • Time parameters for restrictive housing: Currently, inmates may face disproportionately long sanctions due to the lack of time parameters for completion of disciplinary hearings. To address the substantial variations among facilities in the amount of time an inmate may serve in segregation for an offense, the report recommends that BOP establish a time limit for how long an inmate can be held in investigative status. The report also addresses concerns related to the length of time inmates spend in segregation by recommending that BOP allow credit for an inmate's time served in Special Housing Units upon the determination of a disciplinary sanction and that BOP reduce the length of segregation in Special Management Units from 18-24 months to 12 months.


  • Programming for individuals in segregation: Individuals in solitary confinement have limited access to many basic services and programs that are offered to other prisoners. The report recommends that BOP establish a formal, system-wide reentry preparedness program to help prisoners held in segregation transition either back into the general prison population or into public life.


The report also includes several additional findings and recommendations regarding the extent of segregation, conditions of confinement, and due process concerns. Along with the report, BOP released a response providing additional background and addressing some of these recommendations.


During the last several decades, the United States has witnessed an explosion in the use of solitary confinement for federal, state, and local prisoners and detainees. Today, more than 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States. This is – by far – the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world.


Solitary confinement – also called restricted housing, supermax housing, segregation and isolation – is designed to separate inmates from each other and isolate them for a variety of reasons. Originally used to segregate the most violent prisoners in the nation’s supermax prisons, the practice has been used more frequently in recent years, including for the supposed protection of vulnerable groups like immigrants, children and LGBT inmates. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States holds over 80,000 people in some kind of restricted housing.


Prisoners in isolation are often confined to small cells without windows, with little to no access to the outside world or adequate programs and treatment. Inmates are confined to these cells for up to 23 hours a day.  Such extreme isolation can have serious psychological effects on inmates and can lead to mental illness, self-mutilation and suicide. According to several state and national studies, at least half of all prison suicides occur in solitary confinement.


In addition to the impact solitary confinement has on inmates, there are also public safety and fiscal concerns with the practice. The bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons found that the use of solitary confinement often increased acts of violence in prisons. It also is extremely costly to house a prisoner in solitary confinement.