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An Appeal For Better Policies on Federal Solitary Confinement

After a 40-year spike in federal incarceration rates beginning in 1980 has tapered off, a bipartisan consensus for solitary confinement reform is finally starting to crystallize, says a new report from the Texas Public Policy Foundation. What was once considered a last-resort disciplinary practice in federal prisons has morphed into a default option when other correctional and administrative protocols fail on their first try, the report says. The foundations says prison officials continue to misuse segregated housing units for medical isolation to combat COVID-19. "Warehousing sick inmates poses a unique challenge as those who report symptoms are unjustifiably forced to endure an experience known to cause mental and physical harm," says the report, which concludes that information released by the Bureau of Prisons makes it nearly impossible to determine the total length of time served in solitary confinement by each inmate.

The prolonged effects of solitary confinement take the form of irreversible physical and mental health disorders. When isolated inmates are released directly after solitary confinement, they reoffend in rates disproportionately higher than the general prison population. Long durations in segregation exacerbate mental illnesses, leading to bouts of psychosis. This prevents inmates from integrating back into the labor market, and is correlated with higher rates of criminal episodes. The foundation offers policy solutions to improve federal solitary confinement. Data transparency is essential. Enhancing due process is another way to redirect prison officials to alternative punitive measures. The report says the prison agency should also consider expanding educational and rehabilitative programming for inmates in isolation, as these changes will reduce occupancy and recidivism rates with a single policy adjustment. The foundation adds that BOP should take step to reduce violence and inmate suicides in solitary by improving mental health assessments.


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