A SHU By Any Other Name…
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.