Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Problem With Defining 'Solitary Confinement'

The number of federal prisoners in segregated units has grown faster than the overall population. Yet the Bureau of Prisons director denies that the agency practices solitary confinement.

If you've ever watched the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black—a TV show based on a book about women incarcerated in a federal prison—you're probably familiar with "the SHU," or Special Housing Units. In the show, the SHU is synonym for solitary confinement, and the show's female inmates fear being sent to SHU for misconduct.

At a hearing of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday, activists clashed with prison administrators over the level of mistreatment in the federal prison system, especially when it came to defining "solitary confinement."
One of the people who gave testimony at the hearing was Piper Kerman, an ex-convict and the author of Orange Is The New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. Her account of SHU is far different from that of Charles Samuels, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

During her testimony, Kerman called on the Obama administration to replace Samuels—who is retiring from the bureau before the end of this year—with an independent leader from outside of the bureau who is committed to enacting more compassionate prison policies, such as reducing solitary confinement.

But in a confusing exchange with Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey at the hearing, Samuels denied that the Federal Bureau of Prisons even practices solitary confinement.

"We do not practice solitary confinement," Samuels told Booker at the hearing. "Our practice has always been to ensure that when individuals are placed in restrictive housing, we place them in a cell with another individual, to also include that our staff make periodic rounds to check on the individuals."

"I'm sorry, I just really need to be clear on that," Booker cut in, sounding baffled. "Your testimony to me right now is that the BOP does not practice solitary confinement of individuals singularly in a confined area?"

"You're correct," Samuels said. "We only place an individual in a cell alone if we have good evidence to believe that the individual could cause harm to another individual and/or if we have our medical or mental health staff given an evaluation that it would be a benefit to the individual to be placed in a cell alone. We do not under any circumstances, nor have we ever, had a practice of placing individuals in a cell alone."

Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said Samuels did not testify accurately.


"It's patently untrue. The Bureau of Prisons does use solitary confinement," Fettig said. "It is simply a word game to try to cover up a practice that harms people."

No comments: