Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday March 2nd, 2015, 6:19pm

Durbin Calls For Reforms To Solitary Confinement In Prisons

new review of restrictive housing programs used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons makes the case for "meaningful" reforms to solitary confinement practices, says U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL).

"The fact remains that the United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world," the senator said in a statement Friday, when the independent report on U.S. prison segregation policies, conducted by CNA Analysis and Solutions, was released.  

"The findings and recommendations of this report provide further evidence that we must fundamentally reform our approach to solitary confinement," Durbin added.

The senator asked the Federal Bureau of Prisons to do an independent review of its restrictive prisoner housing practices following a 2012 Senate hearing, led by Durbin, on solitary confinement issues.

The report includes some positive findings, including a decline in the number of inmates held in solitary confinement over recent years. Specifically, the total number of inmates in segregation fell from 14,942 in 2011 to 10,747 as of June 2014.

Also of note, CNA found that "general conditions of confinement in restricted housing units are consistent with national regulations and standards."

For its assessment, CNA reviewed the Federal Bureau of Prisons' use of "special housing units" and "special management units." The review also looked at the bureau's administrative maximum (ADX) facility in Florence, Colorado.

Inmates are placed in special housing units, either alone or with other inmates, for various reasons, including "administrative detention" purposes, like when an inmate is awaiting transfer to another institution or needs protection from other inmates. Special housing units, which are separate from the general prison population, are also designated for inmates with a "disciplinary segregation" status.

Special management units are another category of restrictive housing designated "for any sentenced inmate whose history, behavior, or situation requires enhanced management approaches," the report reads. The bureau's ADX facility, which is under high security, is for maximum-custody-sentenced inmates who are held in solitary confinement.

Although there were some improvements on prison segregation matters, the report lists several areas, including mental health services for inmates in restrictive housing, that need more attention.

"Though improvements have been made - most importantly in the declining number of inmates in solitary confinement - there is still much more work to be done," Durbin stressed. "The independent report released by the BOP will inform our next steps as we move towards meaningful reform of solitary confinement practices in our prisons."

The prisons bureau, according to CNA's new report, needs to "significantly improve" its mental health services for individuals in segregation. Specifically, CNA says the bureau falls short when it comes to "proper mental health diagnosis," "effective treatment" and "sufficient psychiatric staffing." Among other recommendations, the report calls for a complete review of all inmates assigned to restrictive housing to determine which individuals should be moved to a "secure mental health program."

The federal prison system also lacks "adequate non-punitive protective custody housing units that have equivalent levels of programs and privileges as general population inmates," CNA says. The group recommends that a separate housing option be created for inmates in protective custody.

Also, the "lack of time parameters for completion of disciplinary hearings" can mean disproportionately long periods in confinement for inmates, the report reads. To address this issue, CNA says there should be a limit set for the amount of time inmates can be held in investigative status. Inmates, according to CNA's report, should also receive credit for the time held in special housing units before disciplinary sanctions are determined. Among other suggestions, the bureau should scale back the length of segregation in special management units to 12 months, down from the current 18 to 24 months.

Another area that needs improvement is the amount of out-of-cell activities for inmates, CNA notes.

A release from Durbin's office points out that inmates in segregation are typically placed in small, windowless cells for up to 23 hours a day. These inmates often lack "access to the outside world or adequate programs and treatment," the release says, adding that, "Such extreme isolation can have serious psychological effects on inmates and can lead to mental illness, self-mutilation and suicide."

For its part, the prisons bureau says "restricted housing is an important tool for corrections to accomplish our mission."

"Offenders who pose a threat to the safety and security of prisons, or who require protection from other inmates, must be housed in more controlled environments," the bureau said in its response to CNA's analysis. "We remain committed to continuing to review our policies and practices regarding the most appropriate use of restricted housing. The information contained in this report will be of great assistance to the bureau of prisons for years to come. We will continue to work with all corrections professionals to enhance and improve the use of restrictive housing throughout the country."

Read the Federal Bureau of Prison's full response here.

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