Oct 4, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Solitary confinement up under Biden, despite promise to reduce practice

U.S. Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters delivers remarks after her swearing in at BOP headquarters.

U.S. Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters delivers remarks after her swearing-in ceremony in August. Photo: Evelyn Hockstein-Pool/Getty Images

The number of people in federal solitary confinement has jumped 12% since the start of the Biden administration, according to an Axios review of new Federal Bureau of Prisons data.

Why it matters: President Biden campaigned on dramatically reducing solitary confinement in federal prisons, but the agency says numbers keep rising. Biden signed an executive order in May that called for reducing solitary confinement and required the attorney general to report on progress within 180 days.

Details: As of Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that 11,361 federally incarcerated people were in solitary confinement — a jump from around 10,120 during the Biden administration's first months in office.

  • That's also about a 7% increase since Biden signed his criminal justice executive order.
  • At least 1,500 have been placed in "special housing units" — one form of solitary confinement — for 90 days or more.
  • 142,942 incarcerated people are currently in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Zoom out: Prison officials can send incarcerated people to solitary confinement for various reasons, from discipline violations to protection from violence.

  • Solitary confinement consists of limited interaction with others and prohibited use of electronics.

The intrigue: Biden ordered the Justice Department to "ensure that restrictive housing in Federal detention facilities is used rarely, applied fairly, and subject to reasonable constraints."

  • He asked for a comprehensive review to include planned steps to address conditions of confinement around health care, substance treatment and cancer screenings.

What they're saying: "BOP leadership has undertaken a review of its use of restrictive housing and is committed to ensuring that restrictive housing is used and applied fairly," the agency's spokeswoman Randilee Giamusso told Axios.

  • "The BOP cannot comment on the anticipated departmental report date, but is working to comply with all aspects of the executive order, including its directives related to restrictive housing."
  • U.S. Bureau of Prisons Director Colette Peters told senators last Thursday she was "getting up to speed on at the bureau" after taking office in August.

Between the lines: Studies have shown solitary confinement has been disproportionately imposed on Black, Latino, and Indigenous detainees.

  • The practice has also been used regularly on people with mental health needs and has dramatically increased rates of self-mutilation and suicide.
  • In recent years, solitary confinement cases in state prisons and county jails have resulted in expensive lawsuits.
  • One lawsuit said that one man in a New Mexico prison was held in solitary confinement for two years without a trial and was so neglected that he took out his own tooth.

What's next: The bureau is developing new software to better track, analyze, and report critical statistical data of all inmates housed in restrictive housing, Giamusso said.

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