Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) (FIle photo)

U.S. Senators Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chris Coons (D-DE), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) last week introduced legislation to reduce the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) use of solitary confinement and improve conditions for inmates separated from the general prison population.

“As incarcerated people repay their debt to society and prepare to re-enter their communities, we must also ensure that prison facilities are respecting their basic human rights. Overuse of solitary confinement is a violation of basic dignity and respect that does nothing to further public safety,” said Senator Harris. “That’s why I’m joining my colleagues to reintroduce this legislation to restrict the use of solitary confinement, putting us one step closer to a smart and fair criminal justice system.”

The Solitary Confinement Reform Act limits solitary confinement to the briefest term and under the least restrictive conditions possible, because the overuse of solitary confinement threatens public safety, strains prison budgets, and violates fundamental human rights.  The bill also improves access to mental health services for BOP prisoners in solitary confinement, and provides resources to state and local jurisdictions to assist them in reforming their own confinement practices.  Additionally, the bill protects inmates’ civil rights through the creation of a Civil Rights Ombudsman position and bans the practice of placing LGBTQ inmates in solitary confinement as a means of protection.


Harris, Durbin, Coons, Booker, Leahy, and Warren last week also pressed Acting Bureau of Prisons Director Hugh Hurwitz to take measures to address the significant increase in the use of restricted housing in the Federal prison system.  Unfortunately, the once-encouraging decline in the restricted housing population has reversed over the last several months. As of February 27, 2019, 7.8 percent of the total Federal prison population was housed in restricted housing—including 10,581 inmates in special housing units, 892 inmates in special management units, and 398 inmates in the ADX supermax facility in Florence, Colorado.


“This is a deeply troubling development. While we understand BOP is currently addressing significant challenges, including increased contraband, we are also concerned by the sharp rise in a practice that DOJ has acknowledged ‘can cause serious, long-lasting harm’ and should be ‘used only as necessary—and never as a default solution,’” the members wrote in a letter to Acting Director Hurwitz.  “As we reintroduce the Solitary Confinement Reform Act, we urge you to take steps to address this concerning rise in the use of restricted housing. We are ready and willing to work with you to reform and reduce this practice.”


Full text of the letter is available here.


The Solitary Confinement Reform Act has been endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Human Rights Campaign, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Campaign for Youth Justice, and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.