Good news via Reuters:

A spokesman from the bureau confirmed that the National Institute of Corrections plans to retain an independent auditor “in the weeks ahead” to examine the use of solitary confinement, which is also known as restrictive housing.

“We are confident that the audit will yield valuable information to improve our operations, and we thank Senator Durbin for his continued interest in this very important topic,” spokesman Chris Burke said in a statement. 

Prisoners in isolation are often confined to small cells without windows for up to 23 hours a day. Durbin’s office said the practice can have a severe psychological impact on inmates and that more than half of all suicides committed in prisons occur in solitary confinement. 

In Durbin’s state of Illinois, 56 percent of inmates have spent some time in segregated housing. 

“The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world, and the dramatic expansion of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can’t ignore,” said Durbin, who chaired a Senate hearing on the use of solitary confinement last year. “We can no longer slam the cell door and turn our backs on the impact our policies have on the mental state of the incarcerated and ultimately on the safety of our nation.”

The Vera Institute’s Segregation Reduction Project, in which they partner with states and help them reduce the population under solitary confinement, has yielded, to my surprise, impressive monetary savings and no decrease in prison security.

Yesterday, at the Western Society of Criminology, I heard something interesting. Ashley Rubin, who is joining the criminology faculty at Florida State University next year, presented a fascinating paper based on her archival study of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (which we visited a few years ago.) In the 19th century, Eastern State advocated an incarceration model based on total isolation of inmates. Auburn prison, in New York State, did not isolate its prisoners, though it did require them to work in silence; Auburn model supporters critiqued Philadelphia for the inhumanity and wastefulness of solitary confinement. Officially, Philadelphia supporters rejected the critiques. But privately, they double-celled inmates. The warden’s journal reveals the motivation behind this practice: Concern about the inmates’ sanity and their need for company. They also allowed inmates to work out of the cell, when they needed to do so to reduce prison costs through inmate labor.

Apparently, there is nothing new under the sun. Keramet Reiter from UC Irvine has been studying the modern supermax and solitary confinement, and has found the exact same practice going on today: Double-celling in solitary cells in the supermax. Apparently, a second bunk had been thrown into solitary cells in supermaxes as an afterthought, and it’s being used. Read this for more information. Whether CDCR does so to alleviate overcrowding, save money, or alleviate inmates’ mental anguish, it raises the question whether being housed with another person for 23 hours a day in close proximity and tight quarters is better or worse than doing time alone. I suppose the answer depends greatly on the circumstances, the person, the mental state of both inmates, and the extent to which staff monitor the possibility of violence in the cell.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ willingness to examine solitary confinement is welcome news. I hope its findings, as well as the Vera Institute’s important activity, will yield some thoughts on the state and local level about reducing the usage of solitary confinement.

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