Prison Life In America: Special Housing Units (SHUs)

Special Housing Units (SHUs), also known as “the hole,” are how the Federal Bureau of Prison segregates prisoners.

There are three categories of prisoners who are housed in the SHU:

  1. Those in disciplinary segregation as a result of a formal disciplinary finding
  2. Those on administrative detention pending transfer or investigation of a disciplinary infraction
  3. Those in protective custody

Regardless of the status, all three groups receive basically the same treatment. The SHU basically consists of a jail within a prison. In most federal prisons this means a secured, separate area of the prison where there are a few halls housing one-, two-, and three-man cells. Within these rows of dark and dingy cells are prisoners. Most such cells consist of a bunk bed, maybe a desk, a toilet/sink combo, a frosted window (so the occupants can’t see out of it), and perhaps a shower.

This truly is the lowest existence possible in federal prison. The experience of such prisoners is not good. While most prisoners have access to one hour of recreation on weekdays, for some this is too dangerous (due to assaults in recreation cages), and they instead elect to stay in their cells. For those on disciplinary segregation, they are permitted to purchase stamps and hygiene items, while those on administrative detention can purchase limited commissary products. While those in the SHU who still retain their visitation and telephone privileges can receive visitors and make phone calls, both are severely limited. In most Federal Bureau of Prisons‘ SHUs prisoners are permitted to make up to three 15-minute calls a month and have restricted visitation periods. Some prisoners lose such privileges as a result of adverse disciplinary findings.

The long and short of the SHU is that it is one of the most miserable and mentally damaging experiences that the Federal Bureau of Prisons offers. While some prisoners lose touch with reality, others are less so harmed, but do tend to become angry, aggressive, and/or severely depressed. The best way for family and friends to help alleviate such suffering is to visit as much as possible and to order their loved ones books, magazines and newspapers – anything to occupy their time and mind while in the hole. Letters are also essential. These lifelines help to ground the SHU confined prisoner in reality and provide a light in the darkness.

Many new arrivals and transferring prisoners are housed in the hole pending institutional designation or their clearing for general population. So, they spend time in a single or even a few SHUs until they arrive at their designated prison and are cleared to be released into general population.

If a prisoner is under investigation for a serious rule infraction or has been disciplined by the Discipline Hearing Officer for such misconduct, they can be housed in the SHU. Note that while the Federal Bureau of Prisons states at congressional hearings that only the worst of the worst are housed within federal prison SHUs, this is not the case. While, yes, those caught fighting, drinking, and getting high are regularly housed in the SHU, so too are those caught engaging in sexual acts or even being out of bounds (e.g., not at an appointment or in class when they are supposed to be). While the investigating lieutenant can lock a prisoner in the SHU pending investigation of a 100 or 200 series incident report, only the Discipline Hearing Officer can sanction a prisoner to disciplinary segregation.

While the BOP does have a Witness Security (WITSEC) program, very few federal prisoners are a part of it due to a number of factors. Instead, there are some harder and softer yards across the system where sex offenders and informants tend to be housed. But, as far as protective custody goes, this consists of the typical SHU experience, albeit for much longer periods of time than if the person was sanctioned for misconduct.

SHU safety concerns two primary areas: cells and recreation cages. In terms of cells, if the guards are trying to put you in a cell with someone who looks like you are going to have a problem with or someone screaming that they are going to get you if you go in there, then refuse. Likewise, if the guard tries to place you in a recreation cage with people who look like they intend you harm, refuse to enter. Outside of this, always try to get uncuffed first and cuffed last. This way you can protect yourself if an issues arises.

If you are in the SHU for a disciplinary infraction, then you need to wait until your sanction of disciplinary segregation has run its course. If you are in the SHU awaiting clearance for placement in general population or transfer to a different prison, then there isn’t much that can be done to speed up the process. But, if you are in for protective custody, then you can always ask to be taken off of the status and released back into general population.

In order to keep your sanity while in the hole, you need to maintain contact with the outside world. While the BOP will try to isolate you physically and mentally, you need to do what you can to connect with others. This means letters, reading, and writing. While not the easiest thing to do, find ways to make connections. This is what will help you retain your sanity.

You can file a grievance contesting your placement in the SHU. This is called an administrative remedy. If you are in the SHU as the result of a disciplinary sanction, then you can appeal the finding. If you are housed there due to being under investigation, then you can contest your placement. You can also grieve other reasons for being housed in the SHU.

Contact Us for more information on Special Housing Units.