"We do not practice solitary confinement," Samuels told Booker at the hearing. "Our practice has always been to ensure that when individuals are placed in restrictive housing, we place them in a cell with another individual, to also include that our staff make periodic rounds to check on the individuals."
"I'm sorry, I just really need to be clear on that," Booker cut in, sounding baffled. "Your testimony to me right now is that the BOP does not practice solitary confinement of individuals singularly in a confined area?"
"You're correct," Samuels said. "We only place an individual in a cell alone if we have good evidence to believe that the individual could cause harm to another individual and/or if we have our medical or mental health staff given an evaluation that it would be a benefit to the individual to be placed in a cell alone. We do not under any circumstances, nor have we ever, had a practice of placing individuals in a cell alone."
Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said Samuels did not testify accurately.
"It's patently untrue. The Bureau of Prisons does use solitary confinement," Fettig said. "It is simply a word game to try to cover up a practice that harms people."
So, what explains the two different stories? According to Fettig, the bureau has reckoned with a growing prison population by double-celling inmates in solitary confinement, then claiming that doesn't qualify as solitary confinement.
In fact, this interpretation is at odds with the bureau's parent organization, the Department of Justice. The DOJ defines solitary confinement as "the state of being confined to one's cell for approximately 22 hours per day or more, alone or with other prisoners, that limits contact with others."
A 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office found that the number of inmates in so-called segregated housing units — including SHU, Special Management Units, and Administrative Maximum — had increased more quickly than the general inmate population.
Between 2008 and 2013, the inmate population in segregated housing units increased roughly 17 percent, compared to a 6 percent increase in the general BOP inmate population.
The report could not conclude what impact solitary confinement has on prison safety, if any. That's because the Bureau of Prisons has not examined the impact of segregated housing on safety or the health of inmates.
"Without an assessment of the impact of segregation on institutional safety or study of the long-term impact of segregated housing on inmates, BOP cannot determine the extent to which segregated housing achieves its stated purpose to protect inmates, staff and the general public," the report's authors found.
Toward the end of Tuesday's hearing, Samuels admitted that prisoners at the ADX in Florence, Colorado — a prison known for housing some of the most notorious criminals in the U.S., along with lower-level offenders — are placed in solitary confinement, but reasoned that 46 percent of the inmates there have been "involved in homicide" at some point in their lives.