Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

A SHU By Any Other Name…

with 5 comments

CNN has this report today on Tommy Silverstein, who murdered a federal prison guard in 1983 and has been held in solitary confinement in Colorado’s federal supermax prison ever since — i.e., for 27 years. (So another way of putting it is that Tommy Silverstein has been held in solitary confinement for the exact number of years that your humble blogger has been on this Earth.) With the help of attorneys from the University of Denver’s Civil Rights Clinic, Silverstein is suing the federal government for violating his rights under the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Anyway, the more chilling part of the article is the Bureau of Prisons‘ somewhat Orwellian insistence on word choice:

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons says “solitary confinement,” a term widely used by prison advocacy groups and attorneys, doesn’t exist in federal prisons. Instead, authorities call the isolated cells where inmates are housed the SHU: special housing units.

U.S. Bureau of Prisons spokesman Edmond Ross estimates that on any given day, 11,150 of the 200,000 federal inmates are kept in special housing units. The reasons for confinement vary from protecting a witness to disciplinary measures.

It seems to me that if the BOP wants to defend the practice, that’s one thing, but it’s somewhat bizarre to deny that a person who is being held in a cell by himself, without contact with other people, is well within the dictionary meaning of “solitary confinement,” regardless of what term the BOP prefers to use for its own internal purposes. By the way, if you missed Atul Gawande’s must-read New Yorker article on the psychological ramifications of solitary confinement, you can download it here.

5 Responses

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  1. The American Penal system (The BOP) can call this form of treatment anything they like; dress it up with names like The Special Housing Unit (SHU)! Solitary Confinement, Sensory Deprevation and of course not forgeting the Vilest of them all; “No Human Contact” whatever they prefer it to be called it all ammounts to one thing, its a TOTAL violation of this mans human rights and breaks the ruling of the Eighth Ammendment.

    barri john

    March 9, 2010 at 8:44 am

  2. […] within the borders of the United States. (The federal Bureau of Prisons, by the way, insists that “solitary confinement” does not exist within its system; inmates who live in isolated lockdown are in ”Special Housing […]

  3. […] federal Bureau of Prisons officially states that it does not have solitary confinement–but in the same breath says that on any given day, some 11,000 of its 200,000 prisoners are […]

  4. The worst criminals in the world are the government officials who use their positions of power and authority to violate the rights of those they have power over. None are worse than the correction officers and wardens in American prisons. It’s state sanctioned torture, and the nazis were the all-time experts at it.

    Edward C. Stengel

    September 15, 2010 at 10:38 pm

  5. In this country we have a constitution and We have voices that need to be heard. I want everyone that reads this to understand that I believe some people should go to prison but once there they should not be tortured or have their rights violated.
    past is past, what is important is Tom’s rights according to the 8th Amendment, the U.N. Convention and international covenant on civil and political rights are being violated. Remember this as these are our rights and those we love their rights also.
    I am not interested in the crimes but human rights.
    please to not write about past events in reply to this. moreover if anyone reading would like to vote for death penalties or condone toture. why not just become wild mobs of vigilantes stoning and hanging people. Otherwise remember the foundation our country. We are civilized opposed to torture should not be driven by public hysteria but by law. Tom’s years of isolation offends me as an American citizen and should appall each and ever person in this country
    I only hope Tom gets more relief from this lawsuit and of course his precedent torture and lawsuit will help the thousands of others in Isolation.


    January 5, 2011 at 10:35 am

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