The new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons said Thursday that officials are reviewing why the number of inmates being held in so-called restrictive housing has climbed in recent months, contrary to the executive order that President Joe Biden issued in May calling for the practice to be "used rarely" and for prisoners to be kept "free from prolonged segregation."
The surge in restrictive housing — informally known as solitary confinement — has perplexed BOP Director Colette Peters, who told NBC News that she "asked the same question when we saw the numbers come forward, so I'm curious as well."
An NBC News analysis last month of BOP figures revealed that the number of inmates held in restrictive housing had gone up 7% since May 28, the same week Biden signed his executive order, and was up more than 11% from the first few months of his administration.
The number hasn't fallen: As of Thursday, 11,398 inmates were being held in restrictive housing, according to the BOP, up slightly from 11,368 at the end of September.
The vast majority of them are in special housing units, in which they are segregated from the general population due to safety concerns or as a form of discipline. The federal government houses more than 142,000 inmates in its custody across the United States.
While Peters is unsure of the reasons behind the upward trend, she said that anecdotally, Covid may be forcing some individuals to quarantine out of health concerns.
"Did that move increase those numbers? Or do we have some serious work to do?" she asked.
Before becoming director in August, Peters led Oregon's prison system for a decade, where she made the reduction in the use of solitary confinement a priority and believes it's in part why she was selected for her new role.
At a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in September, the committee's chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pressed Peters over how the BOP would address the "abuse" of solitary confinement, which the United Nations considers 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.
"What would a perfect scenario look like? It really is limiting the use of restrictive housing when absolutely necessary," Peters said.
But "for those that do need that temporary time out, if you will, in a perfect world they're engaged in programming, they have human contact, they have out-of-cell time," she added. "We know so much more now from research around what solitary confinement can do to the hearts and minds of those there, and so this is something we need to take very seriously."
As part of his executive order, Biden directed the Office of the Attorney General to submit a report to the White House to ensure that restrictive housing is "used rarely, applied fairly, and subject to reasonable constraints" and that inmates are housed "in the least restrictive setting necessary for their safety and the safety of staff, other prisoners and detainees, and the public."
Attorney General Merrick Garland has until November to provide the report. Peters said she is confident that the deadline will be met.
But prisoner advocates like Tammie Gregg say that the federal government must provide more data regarding the use of solitary confinement and that Peters has the power to put restrictions around it without having to wait on the White House.
"There are no numbers that are validated around how many hours people are being kept there," Gregg, the deputy director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, said. "We need more transparency."
Peters vowed Thursday that the federal government is headed in that direction.
"I think the analysis that the department is undergoing right now is going to be the first step in that. It will show us where we are, it will give us the baseline assessment of what it looks like," she said of restrictive housing, "and in order to discuss any improvements we have, we have to measure it."
"That's the only way we'll be able to tell if we're making progress," she said.