DOJ Report Slams Housing of Mentally Ill Inmates

DOJ Report Slams Housing of Mentally Ill Inmates

In a sharply critical report, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General Michael Horowitz takes issue with how the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) houses mentally ill inmates in the federal prison system.

The report, “Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Use of Restrictive Housing for Inmates with Mental Illness,” issued July 12, concludes that while BOP has made some progress in improving mental health services, its practices in the area of so-called “restrictive housing” contradict its claim that it does not use solitary confinement. But at the same time, BOP has failed to clearly define standards for what it calls “restrictive housing” and “extended placement.”

In 2014, the BOP announced policy changes that it said would boost mental health care. The bureau currently neither uses the term “solitary confinement” nor admits its existence in BOP-run facilities. But the DOJ watchdog’s report said its investigation “found inmates, including those with mental illness” housed in single-cell confinement, isolated from other prisoners and with limited other opportunities for human contact.

The report also noted several other deficiencies in BOP mental health care beyond housing. These included frequent failures by BOP mental health staff to document inmate mental health conditions, large shortages of mental health staff, and the fact that since BOP announced its 2014 policy changes that were intended to improve mental health care, the number of inmates actually receiving regular mental health treatments declined by about 30%, and by about 60% for inmates with the most serious conditions.

Almost 10,000 inmates in BOP institutions – roughly 7% of the total population – are housed in various forms of restrictive housing. In addition to the Florence Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility, there is also a Special Management Unit (SMU) in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and Special Housing Units (SHU) in 111 facilities.

At the “Supermax” facility in Florence, Colorado, DOJ investigators found a pair of mentally ill inmates who were confined to individual cells for 22 hours a day and, for the remaining two hours of the day, were prevented from having contact with any other inmates. Mentally ill inmates at Florence, the report added, spent on average 69 months in near-isolation, even though many states limit confinement in such conditions to a maximum of 30 days.

Over the period between fiscal years 2008 and 2015, the DOJ investigation also found inmates with mental illness in an SMU spent an average of about 29 months there. Another concern the report found was of those inmates with mental illness who spent nearly two-and-a-half years on average in an SMU, 13% were released directly into their communities. The report further pointed out that the BOP does not keep statistics on recidivism rates.

Part of the problem, the IG’s report noted, was that while BOP acknowledges solitary confinement can contribute to inmates’ mental deterioration, the agency neither keeps track of how long a mentally ill inmate has been kept in solitary conditions nor has reliable data on how many inmates suffer from mental illness.

BOP’s acting director Thomas Kane responded by saying the agency would implement all 15 of the report’s recommendations on ways to improve the screening, treatment, and monitoring of inmates with mental illnesses who are in restrictive housing.

Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who was incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News, and various other print and online publications.