Advocates call on Congress to end solitary confinement in prisons

WASHINGTON D.C. — Right now, thousands of inmates are in solitary confinement in federal prisons, nationwide. But there’s a push to end restrictive housing because of the toll it takes on inmates’ mental health.

This is something Eddie Ellis knows all too well.

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“Emotionally, mentally solitary confinement has taken something from me that I’ll never be able to get back,” said Ellis.

He spent 15 years in state and federal prisons and 10 of them were inside restrictive housing also known as solitary confinement.

“I was afraid to give up. I was really afraid to give up and I wanted to come home, I wanted to be free and I wanted to live my life as someone that can give back and be an example for other people,” said Ellis, who now works with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Ellis made it back home but that isn’t always the case.

A recent U.S. Department of Justice watchdog report shows nearly 200 inmates died by suicide within federal prisons from 2014 to 2021. It found 46% of those deaths were inmates living in restrictive housing.

On Tuesday, Ellis joined other survivors and advocates for a press conference ahead of a Senate committee hearing about solitary confinement.

“When will we prioritize true habilitation and healing instead of perpetuating harm,” asked Natasha White who is also a survivor of solitary confinement.

Those advocates are urging Congress to pass a bill to end the use of solitary confinement at the federal level.

“It’s not just a piece of legislation, it is a beacon of hope for countless individuals trapped in a cycle of suffering,” said White who now works with the Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR). “It calls for human alternatives to isolation, emphasizing rehabilitation and mental health support and demands accountability for those who inflict harm on vulnerable populations.”

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“The punishment is the sentence, now you have people being housed in solitary confinement for months and years on and it’s extra punishment and we shouldn’t be allowed to do that as a country,” said Ellis.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons said it only uses restrictive housing when an inmate poses a threat to themselves, staff, other inmates, or the security of the facility.

In a statement, a spokesperson said it “has launched a task force that will address the mental health implications of housing individuals alone in a cell and is committed to improving its suicide prevention program.”

Tuesday, lawmakers also heard from law enforcement about solitary confinement during a congressional hearing. Texas Sheriff Roy Boyd believes mental health plays a big role in these cases.

“We generally lack the space for people who are in need of mental health to go to actually mental health facilities and those people are being shoved into the criminal justice system which they should not,” said Sheriff Roy Boyd of the Goliad County Sheriff’s Office. “I firmly believe if we as a country did a better job of identifying and helping people with their mental health, many of them would not end up incarcerated, because the mentally ill don’t need to be in jail, they need the assistance.”

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The “End Solitary Confinement Act” would also set other prison standards such as inmates having a minimum of seven hours a day outside of their cells with access to educational and mental health programs.

Full statement from the Federal Bureau of Prisons:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP) does not house individuals in “solitary confinement.” Rather, the FBOP operates under the guiding principle that individuals should be housed in the least restrictive setting necessary to ensure their safety, as well as the safety of employees, other incarcerated individuals, and the public; and they should only remain there for as long as necessary to address the specific reason(s) for placement. It is the practice of the FBOP to use restrictive housing only as necessary. An individual’s removal from the general population may become necessary because continued placement in the general population poses a threat to self, employees, other incarcerated individuals, the public, or to the security or orderly running of the institution. Individuals in restrictive housing are continuously monitored and reviewed to ensure that continued placement is necessary, including being seen by Medical and Mental Health employees daily.

Generally, individuals in restricted housing of all forms are housed in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) two per cell unless a security concern has been identified. Once an individual is assigned to restrictive housing, we do all we can to minimize disruption to reentry programming and try to return them to the general population as quickly as possible consistent with safety and security.

The safe, secure, and humane housing of incarcerated individuals is one of the FBOP’s highest priorities. While we decline to comment specifically as to any individual, as a general matter, FBOP has launched a task force that will address the mental health implications of housing individuals alone in a cell and is committed to improving its suicide prevention program. In addition, the FBOP is increasing the number of beds available as secure mental health units, which will support moving individuals with serious mental illness out of restrictive housing and into secure treatment programs. The FBOP is also taking several other steps to address mental health issues, including enhancing peer support programs, and continuing to train FBOP employees on suicide prevention, risk assessment, and emergency responses.

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