At a 2012 Senate hearing on solitary confinement, Anthony Graves, who was kept in isolation for a decade, described solitary as a system that was "literally driving men out of their minds. ... No one can begin to imagine the psychological effects isolation has on another human being."
Thanks to a new internal review commissioned by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the public is now learning a lot more about the overuse and misuse of solitary confinement in the federal prison system.
Almost 9,000 inmates out of 212,283 were in isolation in BOP facilities in December 2014. Most of those inmates were in isolation for an average of 76 days (although certain "high security" detainees had been in isolation for an average of 1,376 days — almost four years).
While solitary is often portrayed as a disciplinary tool, in fact, only a small percentage (15 percent) of federal prisoners in isolation are being held for disciplinary reasons. The review authors found that a "disproportionate number" of inmates (1,369) were in protective isolation, and that those inmates were placed in conditions similar to those inmates in disciplinary custody: similar restrictions on movement, frequency of recreation, visitation and telephone access. In effect, those inmates were being punished for seeking protection.
An even larger number of inmates were being isolated during the investigation of a rule infraction. At the time of the review, 4,252 inmates were in isolation because they were under investigation — 48 percent of all inmates in isolation. The review found that it was not unusual for inmates to spend over 30 days waiting for a hearing on the investigation — while states like Ohio require hearings no longer than seven days after an alleged rule violation.
The review authors were also particularly critical of how BOP addressed mental health concerns for people in isolation. Board-certified psychiatrists conducted independent mental health assessments of inmates in isolation and disagreed with BOP diagnoses in nearly two-thirds of the cases reviewed. They also found that the treatment offered by BOP was "insufficient or inappropriate" over half the time. Mistaken mental health diagnoses were undertaken by practitioners without training in psychiatry, courses of treatment prescribed were incorrect, mental health evaluations were cursory and insufficient, and mental health programming was deficient.