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These are some of the reasons US prisoners wind up in solitary confinement

Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
“All beds are to be made daily in military fashion including a 6” collar. If a cell is not acceptable, corrective action including incident reports and placement in the Special Housing Unit can be expected”
  • Annalisa Merelli
By Annalisa Merelli

Senior reporter based in New York City

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

On Aug. 12, Chelsea Manning, the US soldier detained in the disciplinary military barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas for leaking thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks, was been threatened with solitary confinement. Manning is facing indefinite solitary confinement for possessing expired toothpaste, dropping food on the floor, and allegedly having a copy of Vanity Fair as well as one of Cosmopolitan featuring her own interview.

The practice of keeping inmates in Special Housing Units (SHU) in both US federal and state prisons has been under scrutiny for the dangers it poses to inmates, particularly from a mental health perspective. However, in the US solitary confinement is inflicted upon at least 80,000 inmates, including juveniles, often for months or years.

As the Manning case brought to light, SHU can be applied rather arbitrarily and for seemingly minor infractions. Since it is administered as a disciplinary measure, its application is left to the discretion of the prison staff, and often open to misuse.

According to the Inmate Information Handbook Federal Bureau of Prisons (pdf, p.66-74), even low severity prohibited acts can result in “restriction to quarters” and “change of housing” (pdf, page 78), while anything from moderate to high severity act can explicitly be punished with “disciplinary segregation.”

Inmates have been sentenced to solitary for infractions such as refusing to cut their hair for religious reasons, or eating an apple incorrectly, which shows how broadly the offenses officially punishable with solitary confinement can be interpreted. The list of such offenses includes:

  • possessing any locking devices, including keys;
  • failure to make the bed in military fashion;
  • adulterating food;
  • demonstrating martial arts;
  • tattooing;
  • circumventing mail monitoring procedures;
  • indecent exposure;
  • misuse of authorized medications;
  • refusing work;
  • failing to perform work as instructed by a supervisor;
  • insolence towards a staff member;
  • unauthorized contact with the public;
  • being untidy;
  • circulating a petition;
  • feigning illness;
  • using abusive or offensive language.

Other reported common causes of solitary confinement are:

  • Possession of five dollars or more without authorization;
  • participation in a strike;
  • attempted suicide;
  • failure to obey an order properly;
  • “reckless eyeballing”;
  • failure to return an ashtray;
  • possession of an excess quantity of postage stamps.

According to the United Nations, the confinement SHU (typically, in cells of under 8 x 10 feet or 2.4 x 3 meters) for over 15 days is to be considered torture, as it can cause hallucinations, panic attacks, and obsessive thinking.  Manning will face a hearing on Aug. 18, in which a decision will be made on whether she is to be transferred to the SHU of Leavenworth.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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