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Changes To Federal Solitary Confinement Rules Modestly Improve Cruel Conditions

The Bureau of Prisons recently modified its policies governing Special Management Units in federal prisons, but unless federal officials address the negative consequences of isolation and the abusive environment in which prisoners are held, the new rules are unlikely to meaningfully improve human rights conditions.

SMUs are solitary confinement units, where prisoners are locked in a cell built for one person. They typically share this small cell with one or two other prisoners for around 23 hours per day.

Prisoners sent to an SMU are considered extremely violent or have been labeled by prison administrators as influential gang leaders. They participate in a step-down program geared toward changing their behavior and slowly loosening their restrictions to prepare them for integration into the general population.

The new guidelines are the latest in a string of federal prison reforms from the Obama administration. Prisoners in SMUs will now complete the program in one year instead of two. There will also be more of an effort to screen for mental illness during placement and while the individual is participating in the program.

According to a handbook for prisoners in the SMU at the United States Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, the unit has a “multi-level program whose mission is to teach self-discipline, pro-social values, and the ability to successfully coexist with members of other geographical, cultural, and religious backgrounds.”

There are currently two federal SMUs in the United States; the other is at a facility in Atlanta, Georgia. Both are in prisons built in the early 1900s.

The BOP contends SMU programs are “one of the tools available to staff to ensure a safe and orderly environment at all institutions and to address unique security and management concerns.” However, the units have been criticized for their inhumane living conditions.

In a post published on the website, Live from Lockdown, 28 year-old prisoner Quaheem Edwards described his life in an SMU:

The white paint on the walls that surround me is chipped and stained from years of blood, sweat and tears. The doorways are so small you have to enter sideways and even a person standing at 5 feet 9 inches has to kneel. You may here [sic] the saying “Prison is prison.” This is far from being true.

This place where I lay my head every night may be the size of a walk in closet and that is without the normal furnishings. But even with the usual stainless steel sink and toilet, bunkbeds and table, these cells are only enough room for one person. If you have a roommate (and most likely you will) the two of you can’t even be on the floor at the same time. In this place there are holes in the walls where spiders and other insects hide until they think we’re asleep.

It’s hot as hell outside. I know America can relate to this summer’s heat wave. Now picture being trapped in a room where the window barely opens; not to mention the 12-foot pipe that sits in the corner of the cells. All year long this pipe is beaming! I’m talking about a pipe that is so hot, we can boil water in at least twenty minutes! In the hallways on the tiers there are two fans. What good are they on the other side of the door? Our only hope for not passing out is covering these pipes with our sheets and blankets then sleeping by the door. But remember, it’s two of us in a cell……

“Imagine being locked in a cage with another inmate holding a shank (knife). God forbid if you’re getting stabbed, the person has at least a 30-second head start before the [correction officers] show up. Even then they don’t go into the cages until both inmates are cuffed,” Edwards writes. “You could be struggling to find your last breath and may be asked to “Cuff Up.””

“This isn’t a place for any human being,” he concluded.


“My reaction [to the new guidelines] is as my reaction is to the entire federal overhaul of its use of solitary confinement, which is any improvement is an improvement,” said Jean Casella, co-editor of Solitary Watch—a national watchdog organization for prisoners in solitary confinement.

“It’s good to have the President of the United States talking about it and writing op-eds in the Washington Post about it. It’s good to have the Department of Justice paying attention to it. But I still don’t quite understand why these guys, while they’re going through the program, have to be locked down 20 hours and upwards [of] a day,” she said. “I don’t understand that.”

Casella noted there are several thousand people in SMUs. “It seems to me that probably most of them don’t need to be in that kind of setting,” she said, and described a broader problem with the government’s approach to step-down programs, which assumes that “people are starting out from a place where they have to be locked up in those kinds of conditions and then actually reintroduced.”

“In some ways, [SMUs are] a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said. “I suspect some of these guys who are starting out in the SMUs have been in solitary for many years so they may actually need to be stepped-down at that point. But I would like to see the whole thing reconsidered in terms of who is getting sent to the SMUs.”

Casella said she “[looked] forward to a day where there aren’t people who have spent years in solitary and need to be reintroduced to human company. There shouldn’t be a situation where that’s necessary at all.”

“None of [the step-down programs] are focused on the sort of larger injustices of the criminal justice system or society at large,” Casella argued. “They’re asking, ‘Why did you end up here? How did you get here? You have to change your behavior as an individual and become better behaved and a better American citizen.’ They’re not asking questions like, ‘Why were you on the street and joined a gang when you were 13 years old?’ to begin with, because of your lack of any opportunities.”

However, Casella emphasized that step-down programs are not completely without value in our justice system.

“I’ve seen, in some cases, people in step-down programs are actually—if they’re not being locked down all the time while they’re doing it—it’s actually a more humane environment in some ways than the general prison population, because people are encouraged to talk about their lives and their childhoods and their feelings, which is absolutely something that you can’t do in prison because it makes you vulnerable.”

“I do think it’s an opportunity for people to explore stuff that they haven’t explored before, and it can be a safe space to do that,” she said. However, Casella said “there’s a huge range of quality of these programs,” and their quality can hinge, for example, on the way an individual SMU administrator chooses to run the program.

“I’ve seen programs that are run by guards, and they’re terrible, and nobody’s opening up about anything at all of course. I’ve seen programs who are run by really amazing charismatic people, who really are an inspiration to the people that they’re working with. So it really depends.”

Within a broader context, the existence and conditions of SMU are connected to harsh federal sentencing, which advocates say must be reformed. But it will require approaches to crime and violence that are radically different than what we are doing in America today.

“A lot of these guys are doing like thirty or forty years, and a lot of them have done some pretty bad stuff. They’re in there for conspiracy to multiple homicides, because as gang leaders they may have ordered a lot of peoples’ deaths. So I’m not saying that they haven’t been convicted of pretty serious crimes.”

“But in another Western system, they would still be looking forward to parole if they were actually able to work through these programs and improve themselves. But, you know, when their minimum sentence is 40 years, it does decrease your incentive to really work the system and try to get yourself together.”

Casella said sentencing reform will be “truly significant when we start looking at the really hard questions that have to do with violent crimes and crimes that are really repugnant to us and the opportunity for rehabilitation and for parole for those people.”

Finally, it’s important to note the success of a program like the SMU depends on the ability of federal prison officials to execute it with prisoners’ best interests in mind, as well as the will of federal administrators to meaningfully oversee that work. When it comes to policy execution and oversight, the BOP does not have a great track record.

Without meaningful oversight, Casella said it’s “still totally up to prison staff [to determine] who has completed this step and who’s ready to move on to the next step and who’s going to be eligible for this step-down program and who isn’t. These are all decisions that are being made at a fairly low level of rank-and-file prison officers and so they’re totally subject to abuse and favoritism and arbitrariness.”

Casella said she would prefer stronger oversight through the executive branch or congress, and added that “until that happens we can’t have confidence that the system is operating fairly.”

“The changes are definitely a positive development,” she said. “I think it has its limits as a piece of real meaningful criminal justice reform, but I don’t think it’s without meaning either. Anything that’s going to significantly reduce numbers in solitary in the federal system is a good thing.”

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.