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Solitary confinement may soon be a thing of the past

If your loved one has been incarcerated for any length of time, you may have heard stories about fellow inmates spending time in "the box." This is one of many nicknames for solitary confinement or the special housing unit where prisoners remain separated from the general population.

Your loved one may have spent time there. Perhaps he or she is still there and has no idea when officials may return him or her to the normal prison routine.

A nationwide problem

A survey in 2015 of federal prisons in 45 states (plus D.C. and the Virgin Islands) found that special housing units in federal prisons held almost 70,000 prisoners. They may be in the box for at least 22 hours a day for two consecutive weeks or longer. This number does not include state or local jails.

If your loved one is spending time in solitary, it may be for violent or disruptive behavior. This is the original reason why those who built prisons included special housing units, to remove those inmates from the general population for short periods of time.

However, soon prisons began regularly to overuse the practice by placing inmates in small cells for minor infractions or policy violations. Perhaps your loved one was sent to the box for smuggling contraband or merely because officials suspected he or she associates with a gang.

Overusing solitary confinement

Many agree that prison systems need to do more than reform the use of solitary. They feel that prisons need to eliminate the use of special housing units altogether. When researchers studied 54,000 inmates in solitary confinement, they learned some alarming things:

  • Twenty-nine percent of prisoners in the box had been there for one to three months.
  • Eleven percent had been in isolation for three or more continuous years.
  • At any given time, a federal prison may house 1 to 28 percent of its population in solitary confinement.

If your loved one suffers with mental illness - which is often up to 30 percent of a prison population - you may be especially concerned because of the serious impact long-term isolation can have on a person's psychological well-being.

Changes are coming slowly

Federal law now prohibits the use of isolation for juvenile inmates. While prisons are slowly phasing out isolation in adult populations, some prisons are reluctant to let go of this form of crowd control.

Since your loved one may have limited resources available while he or she is in the box, finding someone to stand up for his or her rights is important. You may wish to speak with an attorney for help in determining if your loved one's rights are being violated and what can be done to improve his or her circumstances.

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