The U.S. Bureau of Prisons faced stinging criticism over its treatment of mentally ill prisoners Wednesday with the release of a federal watchdog report that found the agency locks some of its most troubled inmates in solitary confinement conditions for long stretches at a time.
The report by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General paints a picture of an agency ill-prepared to identify and tend to prisoners with mental illness despite a 2014 policy change that was supposed to boost care for those inmates.
Much of the report looked at conditions for the mentally ill in so-called Restrictive Housing Units, where the most difficult inmates are held.
The government investigation found the agency imprisons inmates in solitary conditions even though though it claims that it does not use solitary confinement.
“Although BOP states that it does not practice solitary confinement, or even recognize the term, we found inmates, including those with mental illness, who were housed in single-cell confinement for long periods of time, isolated from other inmates and with limited human contact,” the report states.
For example, at ADX Florence, a supermax facility that houses the federal system’s most dangerous inmates, federal investigators found two mentally ill inmates confined to individual cells for 22 hours a day. For the other two hours, they couldn’t engage with each other — or any other inmate.
Elsewhere, they found a man with mental illness who had been kept in a single cell for about four years, and another they said had “serious” issues who had spent nearly two decades in Florence before he was moved to a secure mental health treatment program.
At Florence, inmates with mental illnesses were found to be in isolating conditions for an average of 69 months. In contrast, many states limit such arrangements for those with mental illness to no more than 30 days, the report stated.
A Bureau of Prisons spokesman declined to comment on the report. In a response to a draft, Thomas Kane, the agency’s acting director, said the BOP would adopt all 15 of the Inspector General’s recommendations.
The Bureau of Prisons has long faced skepticism and scrutiny of its assertion that it does not use solitary confinement — including at a 2015 Senate hearing. Of about 154,000 inmates in federal custody, more than 10,000, or about 6 percent, are held in some form of restrictive housing, according to the agency.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz said the prison system doesn’t limit how long prisoners can be kept under such conditions or track how long they are there.
“This was particularly concerning given that the [Bureau of Prisons] recognizes that inmates’ mental health can deteriorate while in restrictive housing,” Horowitz said.
Inmates with mental illnesses spent disproportionately longer periods of time in restrictive housing than other inmates, the federal probe said.
Even at a most basic level, the bureau does not seem to know how much of its population is in need of mental treatment, the report said. The bureau has released various estimates that can be contradicted just months later by it own staff.
In 2015, for example, only 3 percent of the federal inmate population was receiving mental health treatment, even though an internal study estimated that 19 percent of inmates had a history of mental illness. At the same time, the agency’s chief psychiatrist estimated that 40 percent of the prison population has a mental illness.
In some cases, prison officials appeared to deliberately undercount prisoners with mental illness, the report said.
After the agency adopted a new policy in 2014 to better care for mentally ill inmates, the total number of prisoners receiving regular treatment fell by 30 percent. It fell by 60 percent for inmates with illnesses considered to be the most serious. The report alleged that prison officials may have reduced the number of inmates who need treatment because “they did not have the necessary staffing resources to meet the policy’s increased treatment standards.”
The problem does not just affect the prisons, the report said: Many of the prisoners are then released to their communities with serious, untreated problems. It is not known if any of them were re-arrested.
The Bureau of Prisons has not kept statistics on recidivism rates — another issue the Inspector General’s Office pointed out.