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WASHINGTON — The nation’s federal prisons are holding inmates in solitary confinement for long periods of time, sometimes years, in spite of mounting evidence that it can seriously hurt their mental health, a government watchdog says.

The Bureau of Prisons says it doesn’t practice solitary confinement, or even recognize the term. But the Justice Department’s inspector general found some inmates, including those with serious mental illness, languishing for years alone in their cells. At the Supermax prison in southern Colorado, for example, a pair of inmates were isolated in their own cells with limited human contact for more than 22 hours a day. Another had been held alone in a single cell for four years.

The agency sets no maximum amount of time that inmates should spend in such “restrictive housing,” allowing some to live there for decades, the inspector general’s report found. One seriously mentally ill inmate spent 19 years in Supermax before being transferred to a secure mental health treatment facility.


The Bureau of Prisons’s practice comes amid mounting evidence that solitary confinement or housing outside of the general inmate population can be detrimental to their mental health, even for short periods of time. The inspector general’s report points to research suggesting isolation can cause anxiety, depression, anger, paranoia and disturbances among prisoners. It notes that some experts say prisoners who have been housed in solitary are more likely to be repeat offenders and have problems integrating back into their communities.

And the findings come as some state prison systems have limited their use of solitary confinement. Officials in Massachusetts, New York, and Mississippi, for example, impose at least a 30-day limit on holding mentally ill people in special units, while Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Maine no longer place them in restrictive housing at all, according to the report.


Prisons officials agreed with 15 recommendations outlined in the inspector general’s report, saying they would craft stronger policies on use of restrictive housing and track how long inmates, particularly the mentally ill, are held in such confines and set limits.

The bureau also agreed to changes after the report found federal prison staff doesn’t always document inmates’ mental problems, leaving officials without solid data on how many suffer from disorders and without ways to ensure they receive proper care. An internal Bureau of Prisons study provided to Congress showed about 19 percent of federal inmates have histories of mental illness, yet prison data also showed just 3 percent of sentenced inmates regularly receive care.

The number of inmates receiving regular mental health treatment fell by 30 percent after the bureau adopted a policy in 2014 that raised the standards for which inmates should get such care, the report said.

Prisons officials said they would better document prisoners’ mental health diagnoses, among other changes.

— Sadie Gurman

  • The fact that solitary confinement can harm inmates is a no-brainer. A well-known symptom of mental illness, particularly depression, is self-imposed isolation. (I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most, if not all, inmates suffer from depression as a result of being incarcerated.) To punish an inmate by placing them in solitary confinement is the same as deliberately exposing them to a disease, or making an existing illness worse. To leave inmates there for extended periods of time is inhumane and the practice of it may even lead to insanity. So not only is an inmate’s freedom taken away (which I am not criticizing) but their mind is also taken away (which is criminal and immoral). In wartime, this practice is used as a form of torture. A report done by the Inspector General to answer the question, “Is it harmful?” was a waste of time and money. The use of solitary confinement is not necessary as there are other methods available to control and/or punish unwanted behavior. Anyone who continues to order or use this practice enjoys inflicting harm on another human being, in which case the jailer is the one with a mental illness.

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