Four months after President Joe Biden issued an executive order to overhaul the criminal justice system, promising his administration would ensure federal prisoners are in “safe and humane” confinement and “free from prolonged segregation,” recent data indicates the total number of inmates held in so-called restrictive housing has been rising.
NBC News’ analysis of federal Bureau of Prisons data revealed that 11,368 inmates were held in restrictive housing — also known as solitary confinement — as of Tuesday, a 7% increase from the 10,607 inmates held in restrictive housing on May 28, the same week that Vice President Biden signed his executive order. Additionally, it has increased by more than 11% since the beginning of the Biden administration.
The great majority of detainees are confined in separate housing units, where they are isolated from the general population for safety reasons or as a form of punishment. The federal government has control of nearly 142,000 prisoners.
Rep. David Trone, D-Maryland, and 11 other Democratic members of Congress signed a letter this week urging BOP Director Colette Peters to lower the frequency and length of solitary confinement. “It’s sad that the numbers have only gone in the wrong direction,” Trone said.
“We have a significant issue,” Trone told NBC News.
Peters had her first Senate hearing on Thursday as the bureau’s head, having replaced Michael Carvajal a month prior. Carvajal, a holdover from the Trump administration, resigned amid criticism of a crisis-filled tenure defined by allegations of unsafe and unsanitary jail facilities, staff misconduct, and significant staffing shortages.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, stated that there may be occasions when solitary confinement is necessary to protect safety and security in prisons, but he questioned how the BOP will manage the “abuse” of its application.
Peters, who once oversaw Oregon’s jail system for ten years, stated that the issue is a priority for her.
She stated, “This is a tough subject.” “Regarding this, I am still learning the ropes at the agency. However, our principles align in this area, senator.”
Durbin was among the Democrats who wrote to Peters this week about restrictive housing, recommending its usage “for the shortest period of time, and only in emergency situations for de-escalation,” along with mental health care for people placed in it.
Before assuming office, Biden committed to reform the federal prison system, in part “by terminating the practice of solitary confinement with very few exceptions.” In his May executive order, he instructed the Office of the Attorney General to submit a report ensuring 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 general public.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland must submit the report by November. A BOP spokesman declined to comment on its status, but told NBC News that leadership is “committed to ensuring that restrictive housing is used and enforced fairly” and is “working to comply with all provisions of the Executive Order, including its restrictive housing directions.”
The bureau also stated that it intends to employ “evidence-based measures that both reduce entry into restrictive housing and expedite discharge from that setting” and is developing software to track, analyze, and report data on all offenders held in restrictive housing.
In circumstances where restrictive housing is required, it is neither solitary confinement nor isolation, according to the agency.
The United Nations defines solitary confinement as the isolation of a person in a cell for 22 hours or more “without meaningful human contact” and considers solitary confinement to be a form of torture if it exceeds 15 consecutive days.
Although prisons may not formally define certain forms of isolation as solitary confinement, prisoner advocacy groups argue that it has the same deleterious effects on mental and physical health. According to studies, solitary confinement increases the risk of self-harm and suicide and may not be efficient at preventing recidivism.
“Despite President Biden and Vice President Harris’ pledge to end solitary confinement, this administration has doubled down on the use of this torturous practice,” said Johnny Perez, director of the U.S. prisons program at the nonprofit National Religious Campaign Against Torture and a former inmate at New York’s Rikers Island jail complex, where he was placed in solitary confinement as a teenager.
However, Trone stated that he is willing to give Peters time to devise a plan to reduce the number of offenders detained in restrictive housing. She told senators at Thursday’s session that she should be held accountable for any problems that continue to plague the federal prison system.
“She inherited a damaged ship,” remarked Trone. I have no problem with her taking her time to organize the place.