Bureau of Prisons Acts to Cut Back on Solitary Confinement

By Christopher Zoukis

While prison systems and corrections officer unions are often reluctant to discuss the ills of solitary confinement, following pressure from various advocacy groups and even President Obama’s stated policy goals of reducing such restrictive confinement, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has recently released information detailing just how common the practice of solitary confinement, or what BOP calls “Special Housing Units.”

The most recent report, “Restricted Housing Data,” appeared in mid-May. It shows 8,228 inmates, or approximately 5.2%, of the 159,432 inmates housed in BOP custody – i.e., those in Bureau-operated prisons, not in privately managed or other types of facilities — were in restricted confinement. In 2011, the figure was about 11,000.

Of them, 6,924 were housed on administrative detention status, while 1,304 were housed on disciplinary segregation status, only available as a formal sanction from a discipline hearing officer for misconduct. Inmates can be housed on administrative detention status for various reasons, including being under investigation for potential rule violations, awaiting transfer, protective custody, and pending transfer, and others.

In descending order of populations, the BOP data shows these reasons for its inmates being held in special housing units:

  •     Pending investigation for a BOP violation (2,884 inmates)

  •      Pending transfer or holdover (1,746 inmates)

  •      Pending hearing for a BOP violation (1,217 inmates)

  •      Inmate requested protective custody (407 inmates)

  •      Pending classification (209 inmates)

  •      Terminating disciplinary segregation, ordered to administrative detention (201 inmates)

  •      Pending investigation for a criminal trial (141 inmates)

  •      Awaiting administrative detention order (95 inmates)

  •      Involuntary protective custody (24 inmates)

The BOP-released data also shows the amount of time federal prisoners are spending in restricted confinement. According to the data, 7,418 prisoners had been in the SHU for less than or equal to 90 days, 810 for over 90 days, 292 for over 180 days, and 65 for over 364 days. Of these, the Bureau clarifies 49 prisoners have been in the SHU for more than 30 days under protective custody status (often requested by inmates seeking isolation to avoid gang-related violence).

In January, six months after ordering the Department of Justice to examine federal uses of solitary confinement as part of a broader criminal justice reform project, the Obama administration announced executive actions designed to reduce use of restricted housing in federal prisons. Federal agencies, including BOP and Justice, were ordered to put the changes into effect within six months.

The revisions banned juvenile prisoners being placed in solitary confinement in federal prisons (only about a dozen juveniles were in solitary at the time), or for low-level offenses. The initiative also adopted over 50 detailed “Guiding Principles” for correctional facilities, devised by the Justice Department.

Despite these new federal policies, state prisons – not covered by the new federal changes — have by far more prisoners, and prisoners in solitary confinement. But the Justice Department recently reached a major settlement of civil rights charges against a Mississippi county, Hinds County, home to the state’s largest city, Jackson, based on how prisoners there are treated. The proposed settlement, which must still be approved by a judge, would require the county to adopt many of the Justice Department’s new principles.


Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com