Skip to main content

Federal Prisoners With Mental Illness May Spend Years in Solitary Confinement

Federal inmates with mental illness may "spend years or even decades" in solitary confinement, according to a new report from the Department of Justice's Office of the Inspector General. Among other findings, the report spotlighted one case in which an inmate spent 19 years in what the Federal Bureau of Prisons categorizes as a Restrictive Housing Unit, which often confine prisoners to single cells for up to 22 hours a day without human contact. The inmate was later transferred to a residential treatment facility.

At least 19 percent of federal inmates have a history of mental illness according to the Bureau of Prisons, though by some estimates the number is much higher, the report noted. However, only 3 percent of federal prisoners receive treatment for mental illness, the report found.

Six of the eight state departments of corrections surveyed by the inspector general said that they restrict the amount of time inmates with mental illness can be confined to restrictive housing. In Massachusetts, Mississippi, and New York, the limit is 30 days, while Colorado, Maine, and Pennsylvania don't allow those with mental illness to be confined in restrictive housing at all.

Overall, the report found, "inmates with mental illness spend disproportionately longer periods of time in RHUs than their peers."