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Bureau of Prisons: Additional Actions Needed to Improve Restrictive Housing Practices

GAO-24-105737 Published: Feb 06, 2024. Publicly Released: Feb 06, 2024.
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Fast Facts

As of October 2023, the Bureau of Prisons was housing about 8% of its prison population in restrictive housing, also known as "solitary confinement." In some cases, this includes isolating people in cells for up to 23 hours per day.

Two prior studies have given the Bureau recommendations on how to improve its restrictive housing practices. However, it hasn't implemented a number of these recommendations—such as monitoring trends in the way it uses restrictive housing. This is partly because it hasn't assigned responsibility for implementing these recommendations to the appropriate officials.

We recommended, among other things, that it do so.

The Bureau of Prisons’ Implementation of Prior Restrictive Housing Reports’ Recommendations

A pie chart showing 38% fully, 48% partially, and 14% not implemented

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has not fully implemented 54 of the 87 recommendations from two prior studies on improving restrictive housing practices. The first study, completed by a BOP contractor in 2014, had 34 recommendations (16 of which are fully implemented.) The other evaluation, completed in 2016 by the Department of Justice (DOJ), had 53 recommendations (17 of those are fully implemented). A May 2022 Executive Order on criminal justice practices directed the Attorney General to ensure full implementation of the January 2016 recommendations. BOP has made slow progress due in part to not assigning responsibility for recommendation implementation to appropriate officials and not establishing associated time frames for completion.

Examples of Two Bureau of Prisons' Restrictive Housing Unit Types

BOP has two key mechanisms—its program review process and its administrative remedy program—to gather information from facilities about restrictive housing operations. However, it is not fully leveraging either, resulting in missed opportunities to ensure compliance and enhance operations:

  • BOP is not ensuring facilities' timely resolution of deficiencies after routine program reviews because it does not have a process to verify that corrective actions were implemented.
  • The administrative remedy program allows incarcerated individuals to file grievances about issues such as living conditions. However, BOP does not analyze grievance data to identify trends and improve operations.

During the 2014 contracted assessment, reviewers found inconsistencies in the application of subjective criteria used to place individuals in the special management unit (SMU)—one that is designed for individuals with heightened security concerns. GAO's analysis of 2022 data appears to confirm that inconsistencies continued, resulting in equity concerns. Black individuals were 38 percent of the total BOP population but 59 percent of the SMU placements. In comparison, White individuals were 58 percent of the total BOP population and 35 percent of the SMU placements. In response to management challenges, earlier this year BOP closed its remaining SMU and has not yet decided on the future of such units. Analyzing the cause of the substantial racial disparity could inform BOP and DOJ decisions on the future of restricted housing and help ensure consistent and equitable treatment of incarcerated individuals.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOJ's BOP is responsible for confining individuals in safe, humane, and appropriately secure conditions. In certain circumstances, such as alleged or substantiated violence, BOP can move individuals to restrictive housing, and generally isolate them in cells for up to 23 hours per day. As of October 2023, BOP continued to house about 8 percent of its population (about 12,000 individuals) in these settings. Strengthening management of federal prisons was added to GAO's high-risk list earlier this year.

Among its objectives, GAO was asked to examine the extent to which BOP (1) addressed recommendations from two prior restrictive housing studies; and (2) leveraged facility information to ensure restrictive housing policy compliance and enhance operations.

GAO analyzed BOP policies and data; interviewed BOP officials; and conducted non-generalizable interviews with staff and incarcerated individuals at five BOP facilities—selected to cover a range of restrictive housing unit types.

Recommendations

GAO is making eight recommendations to BOP, including that it assign responsibility and establish time frames for recommendation implementation and identify the cause of racial disparity in SMU placements. BOP concurred with the eight recommendations but raised related concerns; GAO discusses these in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should develop and execute an approach to fully implement all the 2014 and 2016 restrictive housing reports recommendations. For each recommendation that has not yet been implemented, the approach should include assigning implementation responsibility to appropriate officials, establishing a time frame for completion, and monitoring progress. In instances where BOP does not concur with a 2014 recommendation or deems it impractical, it should document its rationale and the alternative steps, if any, it plans to take. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should enhance oversight by developing and implementing a process to verify and document that facilities have implemented corrective actions that fully address all deficiencies. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should develop and implement a mechanism to identify causes of common deficiencies that recur across multiple facilities and take steps to address those causes. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should conduct an evaluation of previous SMU placements to determine and address the cause of disproportionate representation of individuals in certain racial groups in the SMU population. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should develop and implement a mechanism for routinely monitoring the extent to which facilities are applying the SMU placement criteria consistently and equitably across all BOP facilities should BOP reinstate the SMU program. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should develop and implement a mechanism for routinely evaluating SMU review documentation to ensure that incarcerated individuals progress through the SMU program levels in accordance with SMU policy should BOP reinstate the SMU program. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should develop and implement a process to routinely analyze administrative remedy program data. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Bureau of Prisons The Director of BOP should develop and implement a process to address any identified patterns of noncompliance related to restrictive housing policies and other areas of program weaknesses. (Recommendation 8)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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Agency evaluationsCompliance oversightFederal prisonsHousingHousing policyManagement challengesMental healthMental illnessespandemicsRegulatory noncompliance