After Nine Studies, Use of Solitary Confinement in Federal Prisons Just Keeps Increasing

by | May 10, 2024

This investigative feature story, written by our Senior Writer Katie Rose Quandt and supported by Solitary Watch, appeared earlier this week in The American Prospect. Visit TAP’s website to read the full piece.

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At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) noted that back in 2012, Congress held its first hearing on solitary confinement, something the United Nations considers torture when used beyond 15 days. “I’m disappointed to report,” Durbin said at the hearing, “that more than a decade later, the overuse of solitary confinement remains a stain on our nation.”

That overuse is perhaps most rampant within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), which routinely locks thousands of people in single or double cells for up to 23 hours a day, in what is called “restrictive housing” or “special housing units” (SHUs). Over the years, the BOP has offered a simple response to criticism of their continued use of solitary: Give us more data.

Since that initial hearing in 2012, the federal government has conducted or commissioned at least nine studies and reports addressing the BOP’s use of solitary confinement, including seven that originated from within the Department of Justice (see timeline). Yet there has been little resulting change.

The first two studies, published in 2014 and 2016, gave the BOP a combined 87 recommendations for reforming and reducing its use of solitary. Yet in February, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that the Bureau has failed to fully implement 54 of those recommendations. In 2023, the GAO placed “Management of the Federal Prison System” on its High Risk List of programs “vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement, or in need of transformation.”

Meanwhile, the number of people officially held in federal solitary has remained relatively constant since 2008. It currently sits at a whopping 11,152, making up 7.7 percent of all people in BOP custody—well above the national average among state prison systems. In fact, as the overall federal prison population decreased during that time frame, the percentage of people in restrictive housing is at its highest level since 2008, based on data received via a public record request and data publicly available on the BOP website.

In 2022, Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed Colette Peters to head the BOP, making her the sixth director in six years. Peters, who previously ran the Oregon Department of Corrections, was brought in for her “ability to lead change by establishing a vision for reform.” Advocates hoped she would at least partially implement President Joe Biden’s campaign promise of “ending the practice of solitary confinement, with very limited exceptions.”

But over Peters’s nearly two years in office, the use of solitary has only increased.

In response to increased scrutiny, Peters and the BOP commissioned yet another study last year. In a $7.8 million contract, the BOP hired a nonprofit research institute to study the “reasons, duration and outcomes of restrictive housing placements in federal institutions.”

Peters has claimed that the study is a necessary step to reducing BOP reliance on solitary. “You cannot change what you do not measure,” she wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last year that acknowledged the harms of solitary confinement. “It is paramount that we understand why and for how long people are placed in restrictive housing.”

But after seven studies and dozens of recommendations that have not been adopted, it should be no mystery why so many people incarcerated in the BOP are in solitary confinement, which a growing body of evidence identifies as causing profound and lasting harm, while failing to make prisons safer.

The BOP publishes weekly updates on the number of people in SHU, broken down by the reasons for their placement. These statistics reveal that most people are not in solitary because they are deemed exceedingly dangerous: As of May 5, only 332 of the more than 11,000 in restrictive housing are in the federal supermax. Another 1,267 people are in SHU for disciplinary segregation, essentially for breaking prison rules.

The vast majority—9,553 people—are in “administrative detention,” an officially “non-punitive” category of housing used for a variety of reasons. Within administrative detention, 670 have requested protective custody. Another 2,707 recently transferred into a new facility. Most are there because they are accused of a BOP rule violation and are awaiting due process: 2,285 have a pending investigation, and 3,394 people have a pending hearing.

Waiting for an investigation and a hearing can amount to weeks, months, or longer languishing in solitary confinement, without the ability to appeal the placement. “If you’re under investigation, you’re at their mercy, period,” one man who has spent years incarcerated in federal prisons told me. “If you just piss somebody off, then they have the excuse of putting you under quote-unquote investigation. And you sit in the SHU indefinitely.”…

(Continue reading here.)

Katie Rose Quandt

Katie Rose Quandt is a senior contributing writer/editor at Solitary Watch and freelance journalist based in the Bronx. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, The Nation, The Guardian, and Mother Jones. She is also a senior editor at the Prison Policy Initiative, and was an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow and Soros Justice Media Fellow. Find her @katierosequandt and at

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1 comment

  • Leslie Gold

    Solitary confinement is a vile, inhumane, and completely ineffective practice. That it is so widely used is a toxic stain on our American society!

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