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The use of solitary confinement by corrections systems, including the Bureau of Prisons, has drawn increasing scrutiny in recent years (see, for example, here and here). In this regard, Mary Buser, a former Assistant Unit Chief in the Mental Health Department on Rikers Island, has just published a book, LOCKDOWN ON RIKERS: Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York’s Notorious Jail, that focuses on the practice, among other issues. The following excerpt reflects Ms. Buser’s account of events she witnessed as well as her perspective that most inmates in solitary are non-violent rule breakers often suffering from impulse control disorders, rather than the “worst of the worst.”

Daisy Wilson was my first encounter with someone who might be considered evil, but contrary to the perception that jails are filled with “bad people,” I found few at Daisy’s level of sociopathy. Most are somewhere in the middle, ordinary people who are drug-addicted and may have committed a crime while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, those who’ve made errors in judgment or who’ve acted impulsively or out of desperation. With a little guidance and support, so many in that middle range had the potential to find their way and move on.

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Yesterday, I received an e-mail notice regarding “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences,” the Senate Judiciary Committee’s second hearing concerning the use of solitary confinement.  (Information regarding the last hearing can be found here.). The hearing, to be chaired by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), will be held on February 25, 2014 at 2:30 pm (ET) in the Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 226. From the e-mail:

In recent years, the United States has witnessed an explosion in the use of solitary confinement – also known as segregation or isolation – for federal, state, and local prisoners and detainees. The United States now holds far more prisoners in solitary than any other democratic nation. In June 2012, Senator Durbin chaired the first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement. The hearing featured expert testimony on promising reform efforts that have reduced the use of solitary confinement, while also lowering prison violence and recidivism rates, and saving millions of dollars. This follow-up hearing will explore developments since the 2012 hearing, and what more should be done to curb the overuse of solitary confinement while controlling costs, protecting human rights, and improving public safety.

This hearing is open to the public. Advocates and interested members of the community are encouraged to attend. A large audience filling both the hearing room and overflow room is critical to showing interest in reforming solitary confinement policies and practices. Please RSVP by 5:00 p.m. on Friday, February 21, 2014.

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As various media outlets have reported, on Monday, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL) issued a statement “announcing that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has agreed to a comprehensive and independent assessment of its use of solitary confinement in the nation’s federal prisons.” According to Reuters:


A spokesman from the bureau confirmed that the National Institute of Corrections plans to retain an independent auditor “in the weeks ahead” to examine the use of solitary confinement, which is also known as restrictive housing.[…]
Prisoners in isolation are often confined to small cells without windows for up to 23 hours a day. Durbin’s office said the practice can have a severe psychological impact on inmates and that more than half of all suicides committed in prisons occur in solitary confinement.
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From Guernica magazine comes a thoughtful article about the import of prison tourism. Writing about sight-seeing at the former Alcatraz federal prison, S.J. Culver notes how the tour reflects changes made in the face of objections from the federal Bureau of Prisons:


In the 1980s, the National Park Service attempted to develop some progressive exhibits addressing not only alternative histories, but also issues like human rights. Strange and Kempa write that lefty rangers developing and promoting these projects faced censure:
Bureaucrats in the Bureau of Prisons charged that [one] display was inaccurate and unduly critical. One exhibit featured barbed wire and electric chairs while another interactive exhibit allowed tourists to listen to former captives talk about corruption and brutality in contemporary prisons. This was an instance when one state agency (National Park Service) had invited outside players to participate in site interpretation, to the dismay of another government department (Bureau of Prisons) driven by its own image-management objectives.
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The other week, I came across an interesting article that surmised production of “Innocence of Muslims” was delayed two years due to one of its creators serving time in the federal Bureau of Prisons:


Production of the anti-Muslim film that has fueled violence and demonstrations in the Middle East this week was apparently held up by one of its creators’ stint in federal prison.
The California man most closely linked to the production, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was arrested June 18, 2009 on federal bank fraud charges. A year later, according to federal court documents, Nakoula, 55, was ordered to pay more than $790,000 in restitution and sentenced to 21 months in federal prison. He was also ordered not to use computers, cell phones, or the Internet for five years unless he got an OK from a probation officer.
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Recently, Andrew Cohen, contributing editor to The Atlantic, wrote concerning a one-page “Suicide Prevention” memorandum issued by Bureau of Prisons Director Charles E. Samuels, Jr. to all federal prisoners in the midst of ongoing litigation over conditions at ADX Florence, CO. (Memo accessible via link.). Cohen offers:
Each of you may read such things into this memo. But none of you will be able to read it and reasonably conclude that the Bureau of Prisons is planning to help solve the problem by hiring more doctors and psychiatrists. The June civil rights complaint, in the case now styled Bacote v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, alleges that there are only two mental health professionals responsible for the care of 450 prisoners at Supermax. With such a ratio, it’s ridiculous to think that even those inmates who want to accept Director Samuels’ kind invitation are going to be successful in doing so.
Nor can anyone read the July 20 memo and reasonably conclude that the Bureau of Prisons intends to modify its rules, which prohibit the use of psychotropic drugs in its “Control Units,” the most secure detention portions of its prisons. That’s the essence of the complaints in both pending cases: The Constitution requires adequate medical treatment, including mental health treatment, but often the inmates who need medicine the most are the ones who cannot by policy and practice get it.
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That is the title of a Birmingham News article which surveyed five high-profile Alabamians serving time in the Bureau of Prisons. The differing views on federal prison life provide insight into experiences common to many prisoners (e.g., how to cope with the tedium and make productive use of one’s time).


With respect to designations far from a prisoner’s release residence, 65-year-old John Katopodis, a former county commissioner, was housed at Devens, MA before being transferred to Fort Dix, NJ, and former state senator 72-year-old E.B. McClain was recently moved from “a federal prison camp in Pennsylvania” to a “facility in North Carolina.” There are numerous minimum- and low-security institutions closer to Alabama, which is located in the BOP’s Southeast Region, than those found in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, all in the Bureau’s Northeast Region. As reflected in what McClain told loved ones when in Pennsylvania, proximity most directly impacts visitation and, consequently, a prisoner’s community ties: “I encouraged my family not to travel here to visit [….] The distance is too great[….]”
Katopodis reports being transferred to Fort Dix following three episodes that resulted in SHU placement.
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So entitled is an editorial in last Sunday’s Baltimore Sun concerning correctional systems’ routine use of solitary confinement.

Officially, the state of Maryland does not hold any of the 22,000 inmates in its prison system in what is called ‘solitary confinement,’ a cruel form of extreme punishment that isolates certain prisoners from any contact with other human beings, sometimes for months, years or even decades at a time. In fact, the term ‘solitary confinement’ doesn’t even appear in the state regulations governing prisoner treatment, nor is it anywhere mentioned in guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Justice for the federal Bureau of Prisons.
As the Sun points out, no matter what you call it or how you try to distinguish it, over reliance on “the hole” (a.k.a., Segregated Housing Unit (SHU)) is problematic.
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