The idea of being alone evokes a special kind of dread for many people. Reams have been written on how to avoid this fate, and those who can’t tend to earn our sympathy. Unless, that is, they’re cut off from meaningful human contact because they’re one of the thousands of federal inmates held in solitary confinement. For them, sparing even a thought can feel like more than they deserve.
At first glance, this may not seem like anything worth commenting on, let alone labelling a problem. After all, isn’t solitary confinement reserved only for the worst of the worst?
Except this is our federal government that we’re talking about, an entity that is, to put it mildly, not exactly a paragon of effective or efficient decision-making. It’s unclear, for example, that many of the over 10,000 inmates currently held in the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Special Housing Units (SHU)—a form of restricted housing that typically qualifies as solitary confinement—truly need to be there. Indeed, over 2,000 of them are there simply awaiting either sentencing or transfer to another facility, stuck in a lonely form of administrative detention.
Likewise, there’s very little public information that would let us know if those who are held in connection with an alleged rules violation did much more than aggravate or inconvenience an overworked corrections staff. Instead, the Bureau of Prisons has said, in effect, just trust us. But you’ll have to forgive us if we want a little more to go on than that from an agency that has itself been cited as a hotbed of mismanagement and criminal behavior.
And, of course, even where an inmate is in solitary for a reason that may not deserve much sympathy, they still require our attention. As a recent study conducted by Right On Crime highlights, research has repeatedly shown the awful toll that solitary confinement takes on a person’s mental and physical health. Add in the suspension of rehabilitative programming, and rather than eliminating a safety risk we are simply making possibly volatile individuals worse.
This is an especially concerning fact given that almost all of them will be released from prison one day and return to the community. How well do we expect that transition to go for the more than 1,300 federal inmates who have already been deprived of real human contact for 90 days or longer? What about the 35 who have been in the SHU for over a year?
Although brief periods of isolation may occasionally be necessary to maintain the safety of staff and other inmates, unnecessary isolation will have consequences that inevitably reverberate back into our communities.
We need better transparency to understand who is sent to the SHU and why. Solitary confinement must be used only as a short-term, last resort for those inmates posing an active security threat to the facility, not as a de facto punishment for an infuriating inmate or a long-term solution for a disruptive one.
Especially when someone is appropriately in restricted housing, it’s sheer folly to think that depriving them of human contact is somehow going to make them better able to be around people in the future. We must seize the chance to reduce recidivism by providing services which address underlying issues while the person is still confined in prison rather than hoping those issues will somehow disappear by the time the person is released.
It’s easy to adopt an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality on federal solitary confinement. However, if we do not reform this system through improved transparency and protocols that better prevent misuse, you can be assured that the consequences of this failure to act will not remain hidden behind prison walls.