Justice Department: Federal inmates sometimes in isolation for years

A Department of Justice report makes 15 recommendations to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Story highlights

  • Federal Bureau of Prisons says it doesn't know how many inmates have mental illness
  • Research finds restricted housing in prison can have impact on mental health

(CNN)A new report from the Department of Justice finds that the Federal Bureau of Prisons is not doing enough to help mentally ill inmates -- in part because the bureau doesn't know how many inmates have mental illness.

"We found that the BOP cannot accurately determine the number of inmates who have mental illness because institution staff do not always document mental disorders," said the study, published this week by the office of the Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
According to prison bureau data, as of 2015, 3% of the federal prison system's population was being treated regularly for mental illness. However, other prison bureau reports suggest that 12% to 19% of federal inmates have some history of mental illness. A 2006 Bureau of Justice Statistics report estimates that half of all federal inmates had symptoms or a recent history of mental illness.
    "Because mental health staffs do not always document inmates' mental disorders, the Bureau of Prisons is unable to ensure that it is providing appropriate care to them," said the report.

    'It's a form of torture'

    Aside from a potential lack of treatment, those inmates with mental illness were found to stay in restricted or solitary housing for much longer than inmates without any record of mental illness.
    According to the inspector general's findings, the Bureau of Prisons denied using solitary confinement, saying: "The Bureau does not recognize the term solitary confinement. Therefore, the Bureau does not have a definition or a reference to provide." The report further added that the former correctional programs division administrator said "solitary confinement does not exist within the BOP."
    Yet, when the inspector general's office asked a staff psychologist about the conditions, the psychologist said, "you have no contact, you don't speak to anybody, and it's 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 ... 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."
    Horowitz's office documented cases of inmates who were held in isolated cells for over 22 hours a day. While inmates may have to be held in such situations out of concern for safety for themselves or staff, the Bureau of Prisons has no limits on how long a person can be kept in such conditions. According to the report, inmates were found to be kept in such restricted conditions for up to 19 years.
    According to the report, as of June 2016, there were more than 148,000 federal inmates, about 7% kept in such restricted housing units.
    Recent research finds that confining people in such restricted environments, even for short periods, of time can negatively impact their mental health, and it can be particularly harmful for those with mental illness. At least three states, including Colorado, Maine and Pennsylvania, do not place inmates with severe mental illness in such restricted conditions. Massachusetts, Mississippi, and New York limit such stays to 30 days.

    Treatment decreased since 2014

    The Bureau of Prisons implemented new mental health policies in 2014 to increase the standards of care for inmates with mental illness. Since then, according to the inspector general's analysis, the number of inmates receiving treatment has dropped by about 30%. The authors of the report say the decrease is likely due to lack of staffing and resources to meet the increased treatment standards.
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    The report recognized that the Bureau of Prisons has taken some steps to deal with mental health concerns, including sending inmates with serious mental health issues to residential mental health treatment programs. However, a lack of resources was considered to be a key factor in why more inmates could not be helped.
      As a result of the analysis, the inspector general's office made 15 recommendations to the Bureau of Prisons to improve screening, treatment and monitoring of inmates, including creating policies around who can be held in restrictive housing and limits on restricted housing. It also recommended putting in place systems to track and identify inmates with mental illness.
      In a response to a draft of the recommendations, the Bureau of Prisons said it agreed with all of the 15 recommendations.