The news that the federal Bureau of Prisons locked down all 122 of its prisons in response to a gang fight at an institution in Texas last month had lots of media coverage. It should have, writes inmate Robert Barton in Politico. It mean that more than 150,000 individuals were subjected to solitary confinement for a fight that took place in another state. A lockdown means everyone in a unit or an entire prison is restricted to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, without access to education, recreation, or communication with family. The mental health consequences are well documented. What isn’t being reported is that lockdowns—sometimes for weeks at a time—have been pervasive throughout the federal prison system for a long time. The federal prison system has been my “home” for 26 years now. Reports compiled by the District of Columbia’s Corrections Information Council (CIC) say BOP has been relying on lockdowns to “handle” everything from disputes between a couple of residents to its chronic staff shortages since at least 2018.
In 2019, the CIC visited prisons in Pollock, La., Pennington Gap, Va., and Inez, Ky., and found in all three instances that, “by far the most common concern … was the frequency of lockdowns and their impact on visitation, programming and religious practice.” At the Pollock prison, 16 lockdowns were reported in a 12-month period. In most cases, the CIC found that the lockdowns weren’t due to widespread misbehavior among the incarcerated residents. One report said, “many were in response to fights between small numbers of people, as opposed to facility-wide incidents.” In other words, everyone is repeatedly punished for the actions of a few. Barton has seen people take three years to complete what should be a 12-month rehabilitation program because of frequent halts. He blames a BOP culture "that views its main function as warehousing, and sees its residents as adversaries—animals even—who must be locked away when they get too restive after weeks and months of forced inactivity." He urges President Biden to take the advice of Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) that the departure of the current BOP director is "an opportunity for new, reform-minded leadership at the Bureau of Prisons.”