Federal prison officials are "actively investigating" why the number of prisoners being held in so-called restrictive housing has surged in recent years, according to a Justice Department report released Wednesday that was prepared in response to President Joe Biden's 2022 executive order aimed at overhauling the criminal justice system.
From December 2015 to January, restrictive housing — informally known as solitary confinement — was up 29% for inmates held in the federal Bureau of Prisons' special housing units, or SHU, in which they are segregated from the general population due to safety concerns or as a form of discipline. The increase comes as the Justice Department said the number of inmates placed in other forms of restrictive housing, including for those who are high-security, extremely violent or escape-prone, has dropped over that same period.
The department found that measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19 in federal prisons appear to have contributed to the increase in inmates being confined in restrictive housing because it "slowed the movement of all incarcerated individuals," which then trickled down to those awaiting transfer out of solitary confinement. The federal government houses more than 145,000 inmates in its custody across the United States.
"BOP leadership has been, and continues to be, concerned about the increased SHU population," according to the report. "It is actively investigating causes for the increase to determine the most effective ways to reduce that population."
The Justice Department said it is working to fully implement a 2016 report issued under the Obama administration with recommendations to ensure solitary confinement is "used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints."
In more recent months, the Bureau of Prisons has begun working with the department's National Institute of Justice on another study examining the use of restrictive housing and has assembled a task force of senior federal prison officials to conduct a "nearer-term assessment and provide more immediate recommendations" regarding the practice.
"The Department and the BOP are committed to reducing the use of restrictive housing," a Justice Department spokesman said in a statement. "The BOP is taking the necessary short and long-term steps to thoughtfully address this issue, and we are confident in [BOP Director Colette Peters'] ability to effectively meet the goals of the President's Executive Order."
Biden's order, which he signed in May and called for a slate of criminal justice reforms in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, promised his administration would ensure federal prisoners are in "safe and humane" confinement and "free from prolonged segregation." He directed the Justice Department to file a report to the White House outlining how the BOP would ensure that restrictive housing was being used rarely.
But an NBC News analysis in September found that the number of inmates held in restrictive housing had gone up 7% since the week the president signed the executive order, and was up more than 11% from the first few months of his administration.
In an interview with NBC News in October, Peters, who became BOP director in August, said she was aware that the overall number of federal inmates in restrictive housing had increased and said she wanted to know the reasons behind it.
And as of Wednesday, BOP data shows 11,310 federal inmates in restrictive housing, still a nearly 7% increase since Biden signed his executive order.
Advocates worry that Biden is allowing the Justice Department to "maintain the status quo," and that the president is failing to deliver on his campaign promise to repair the federal prison system, in part, "by ending the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions."
The United Nations considers solitary confinement as the isolation of a person in a cell for 22 hours or more "without meaningful human contact."
Prison staff and correctional officer organizations have countered that isolating inmates can be a necessary tool in preventing serious harm to the inmates or others. But studies have shown it also heightens the risk of self-harm and suicide and may not be effective in combating recidivism.
"We are disappointed that the department's report published today fails to provide a specific proactive plan for how solitary confinement will be significantly limited and ended as the administration pledged to do," Tammie Gregg, the deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said.
Johnny Perez, the director of the U.S. prisons program at the nonprofit National Religious Campaign Against Torture, added that the Justice Department's report only raises more questions, including whether Covid-related mitigation measures that drove up the use of restrictive housing are still in use and why the BOP has been able to decrease the number of inmates in some forms of restrictive housing and not in others.
The BOP has used "solitary confinement at rates above the national average both before and after the onset of Covid, causing grave harm," Perez said, adding that "the time for bold action by the federal government to end solitary confinement in all forms is now."
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the Justice Department's report.