(CN) - The use of solitary confinement in federal prisons will face an independent audit, a legislator and federal agency announced, responding to growing civil rights concerns.
Sen. Dick Durban, D-Ill., set the wheels in motion for the study by commissioning a hearing this past June that featured testimony from lawyers, professors, state prison officials and human rights activists.
One of the experts, Professor Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz, linked long-term isolation to mental illness, self-mutilation and a "disturbingly high" rate of suicide.
That hearing led the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to slash the number of segregated inmates by a quarter and commission an independent review of the practice, Durbin said Monday.
"The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world and the dramatic expansion of solitary confinement is a human rights issue we can't ignore," Assistant Senate Majority Leader Durbin said in a statement. "I am confident the Bureau of Prisons will permit a thorough and independent review and look forward to seeing the results when they are made public. We can no longer slam the cell door and turn our backs on the impact our policies have on the mental state of the incarcerated and ultimately on the safety of our nation."
The U.S. National Institute of Corrections has not yet assigned an auditor, nor is there an estimate as to how long the study will take, Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke said.
The American Civil Liberties Union lauded the announcement and noted that similar reviews have reduced solitary confinement in state prisons.
"The bureau is the nation's largest prison system with over 215,000 prisoners, and has been using solitary confinement at an alarmingly high rate," the ACLU said in a statement. "Similar reviews in state prison systems have led to dramatic reductions in solitary confinement, generating millions of dollars in taxpayer savings."
Durbin pointed to one such review of his home state's former supermax prison, Tamms, where every inmate spent 23 hours a day in a solitary cell.
While it still operated, Tamms spent more than $60,000 a year to house an inmate in solitary confinement, as compared to an average of $22,000 for inmates in other prisons, Durbin said.
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