Inmates with mental health issues are kept in solitary confinement longer than their peers in federal prisons, according to a new study that finds the mentally ill spend years holed up without any human contact or treatment for their disorders.
Although the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) claims it does not keep inmates in solitary confinement, a large number of inmates with mental illness were found to be confined to “restrictive housing units” for long periods of time in violation of federal policy, according to a report released Wednesday by the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Inspector General (OIG).
Michael Horowitz, Inspector General for the DOJ, said an investigation into the BOP concluded it does not limit the amount of time that inmates are kept in restrictive housing units (RHU), nor does it monitor the total amount of time that inmates spend in RHU.
“This was particularly concerning given that the BOP recognizes that inmates’ mental health can deteriorate while in restrictive housing,” Horowitz said.
The DOJ defines restrictive housing as “any type of detention that includes removal from the general inmate population, whether voluntary or involuntary; placement in a locked room or cell, whether alone or with another inmate; and inability to leave the room or cell for the vast majority of the day, typically 22 hours or more.”
The OIG, a watchdog arm of the DOJ, found that nearly 10,000 federal inmates, or around 7 percent of the total federal inmate population, were confined to restrictive housing units as of June 2016.
In a podcast released by the OIG along with the study, Alexandra Montero, an inspector with the Evaluation and Inspections Division, said that inmates with mental disorders “may spend years and even decades in restrictive housing, which could negatively impact their mental health.”
Montero described one inmate who spent 19 years in the Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) before being transferred to a mental health treatment program. He said the average time a mentally ill inmate would spend in ADX would be around 69 months. He added that it was “particularly concerning” that inmates with mental illness spent “disproportionately longer periods of time in restrictive housing units than their peers.”
The 96-page report cites a 2010 study that found isolation can be psychologically harmful to any prisoner and cause “anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis.”
A psychologist at the ADX described the RHU as “a form of torture on some level.”
“[Inmates] still talk to officers and stuff like that, but they don’t really get a chance to see anybody,” the psychologist told the OIG, according to the report. “They rec[reate] alone; we don’t even have to be back there to rec them. So, yes, I would say that they are in fact in solitary confinement.”
The OIG found that 13 percent of the inmates with mental illness were released directly into the community after spending 29 months in RHU. They also stated that inmates “come out of these units damaged and functionally disabled.”
In May 2014, the BOP adopted a mental health policy to treat mentally ill inmates in RHU. However, the OIG found that after adopting the policy, the BOP data actually showed a 30 percent reduction in the number of inmates who received regular treatment.
In 2016, an internal BOP study found that nearly 20 percent of federal inmates have a history of mental illness. However, BOP data showed that, as of 2015, only 3 percent of prisoners were being treated regularly for mental illness.
After analyzing data and conducting interviews, the OIG concluded that the BOP did not have the proper staff to meet the standards laid out in the policy.
“It appears that mental health staff may have reduced the number of inmates, including those in RHUs, who must receive regular mental health treatment because they did not have the necessary staffing resources to meet the policy’s increased treatment standards,” the report said.