Special Housing Units (SHUs), better known as “the hole” or “the bucket,” are distinct locations inside America’s prisons which house prisoners under investigation for misconduct, those actively being sanctioned for misconduct, and prisoners in protective custody. By and large, they consist of small, cramped cells in which prisoners are often locked down for 23 or 24 hours a day. Lengths of stay can range from a few days to decades. Almost all of the research in the field indicates that the SHU experience is damaging to those housed therein.
Today I sit down with prison law expert Christopher Zoukis to discuss Special Housing Units. As a current federal prisoner, a regular contributing writer to “Prison Legal News” and Blog Critics, and the founder of PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com — and one who has personally experienced confinement in a federal Special Housing Unit — he has a unique perspective to offer on the experience, its usage, and the damage caused to those subjected to it.
Randall Radic: What is a Special Housing Unit? How does it differ from regular prison?
Christopher Zoukis: A Special Housing Unit is a type of segregated imprisonment. Generally speaking, these are much more restrictive than regular prisons or general population housing units.
In most federal prisons, there is a building designated the Special Housing Unit. This can be thought of as a prison within a prison. Or, better yet, a jail within a prison. Inside this building — which is often fortified and completely separated from the regular prison — rows and rows of cells can be found. Sometimes these rows of cells are called “ranges.” Within these cells, which can have either one or two occupants, are those locked down due to disciplinary sanctions, those currently under investigation for misconduct, or those in for protective custody. Depending on the federal prison in question, inmates housed therein are locked down for either 23 or 24 hours each day, can shower daily or a few times a week, and are afforded a total of 5 hours or recreation time each week. This recreation time is spent in an outdoor cage which resembles a dog run.
Long story short, a Special Housing Unit is a prison within a prison where special populations are intensively confined. This existence is significantly more restrictive and damaging than regular prison life.
Randall Radic: I’ve read statements from the Federal Bureau of Prisons that only the worst of the worst or the most violent prisoners are housed in Special Housing Units. Since protective custody status inmates are also housed in SHUs this doesn’t seem to add up. What’s the truth of the matter?
Christopher Zoukis: You know, I’ve even read statements from Charles Samuels, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, to Senate committees in which he makes the same assertions. It’s plainly untrue. Any federal prisoner can be placed in a SHU for any number of reasons. The fact that prisoners in protective custody are housed in SHUs is direct evidence that they are used more expansively and extensively than one would like to believe, or the BOP would have you know.
The truth of the matter is that SHUs are full of prisoners who, in addition to being in for protective custody, are either under investigation for misconduct, being sanctioned for a disciplinary violation, or are in the process of being transferred between prisons (called being on “holdover” status). Generally speaking, prisoners confined in a Special Housing Unit for disciplinary matters, regardless of due to an investigation or formal sanctions, have been accused of committing an infraction of the high or greatest severity. This can cover a wide range of misconduct. For example, at the top of the scale, prisoners could be confined in a SHU for killing someone in prison or for escaping (or attempting to do either). But, on the lower end, prisoners are sometimes placed in the SHU for drinking, failing a urine test, misusing the inmate telephone, stealing food from the kitchen, or a number of other less severe violations.
Randall Radic: I understand that at one point you were confined in the Special Housing Unit at FCI Petersburg. Could you discuss the circumstances surrounding your placement and confinement in the SHU?
Christopher Zoukis: In early 2012, right after my book Education Behind Bars: A Win-Win Strategy for Maximum Security (Sunbury Press, 2012) was published, I was the editor of a free educational newsletter called the “Education Behind Bars Newsletter.” This newsletter was mailed to prisoners for free by my outside contacts. Its goal was to help prisoners learn how to further their educations. As the third issue was about to be published, the Federal Bureau of Prisons apparently became unhappy with the project — it had quickly grown to several thousand enthusiastic subscribers — and decided to call it a business, even though it was a free publication. Federal prisoners are not allowed to conduct a business. As a result of this misclassification, disciplinary proceedings were launched against me. I was charged with conducting a business and using the mail, email, and telephone to do so.
As a result of these incident reports, I was confined within the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit. In total, I spent 5 months in the SHU for this alleged misconduct. Part of the time was a result of being formally sanctioned to time in disciplinary segregation, and the other part of the time I was awaiting the issuance and resolution of the other incident reports.
Evidently editing a free, educational newsletter is a rather risky endeavor in federal prison, so I obtained counsel to help defend myself against further harassment. I retained the Law Offices of Alan Ellis. Attorneys Alan Ellis and Todd Bussert lead the team of attorneys who helped to defend me. While the process was not an expedient one, we were eventually victorious. After serving 5 months in the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit, I was released back into general population. This was a feat in itself since the process was already initiated to transfer me to a high security federal prison (called a “United States Penitentiary”). Several months after my release from the SHU, all three of the incident reports were expunged from my record. My record was cleared.
Randall Radic: So, you were confined to a Special Housing Unit in a federal prison for promoting educational opportunities for prisoners? That doesn’t sound like someone who is violent or the worst of the worst.
Christopher Zoukis: It’s a sad reality that what the Federal Bureau of Prisons tells the American public and Congress is often plainly not the case. I suppose that you could say that the system worked in that I was eventually cleared. Keep in mind that this was after I was found guilty on multiple occasions by several Unit Disciplinary Committees and the same Disciplinary Hearing Officer on several occasions. But it took 5 months of being subjected to staff intimidation, antagonism, and psychological damage to right the wrong. And still, even after the expungements, those responsible like to joke with me about my stay. I think that they are sorry that the incidents were overturned, not that it happened in the first place.
Randall Radic: Some have written about the damage incurred as a result of placement in Special Housing Units and control units. What are your thoughts? Your experiences?
Christopher Zoukis: My personal experience is that placement in such restrictive confinement can’t help but be damaging. The noise — from the banging and screaming and antics of fellow prisoners — is certainly oppressive. The noise makes it so sleep is often short, conducted in bursts between screaming sessions. The guards are abrasive and abusive. There are no other words for it when the prison guards use items such as toilet paper and toothpaste and food as tools through which to wage war. It should be offensive to anyone to hear that prisoners have to beg a government employee for a roll of toilet paper or for them to push a button to flush a toilet so that waste can be disposed of. If this isn’t enough, the fact that law library access is often banned due to prison guards not wanting to take prisoners there and paper and pencils often being unavailable amount to clearly unconstitutional conditions.
As for damage, I can tell you that after 5 months in a Special Housing Unit, I am no longer the person I was. A close friend says that I grew up in that Special Housing Unit, that I had become more hardened and angry. I went into the FCI Petersburg Special Housing Unit with the belief that justice would prevail, even in a prison disciplinary hearing; something many others have called a “kangaroo court.” I left the SHU understanding that justice is not what the Federal Bureau of Prisons is about. They don’t care about justice or the value of human lives or dignity. No. They care about control. And if lives are crushed in the process, then that’s just the cost of doing business.
Randall Radic: What was it like being released from the Special Housing Unit?
Christopher Zoukis: Challenging and frustrating. I was released on a Tuesday, my commissary shopping day. Since I had been locked down for so long, I was in need of many items. So, I went to the commissary, but what greeted me was overwhelming. A significant period of time in a Special Housing Unit amounts to sensory deprivation. The damage was evident in a minor panic attack standing in the commissary line. I just wasn’t used being around people anymore. For many months I was locked in a small cell with another man, who was very mentally ill. My life revolved around trying to get my cellmate to take a shower, change his clothes, and calming his psychotic screaming and crying attacks. But after my release, I found everything to be a bit too much. I’m not a psychiatrist, but I’d consider this a symptom of something more, and something which certainly affects others subjected to like experiences.
Randall Radic: There is also a lot of talk about mentally ill prisoners being confined in Special Housing Units. You said yourself that your cellmate was in need of mental health treatment. What do you think that SHU confinement is like for such people?
Christopher Zoukis: To them, it’s terrorizing. Half of the time my cellmate would talk to himself about not understanding what was going on or why he was in the Special Housing Unit. He understood that he was being sanctioned for drinking, but couldn’t grasp the concept. In fact, his story was far worse. He had served a month in the SHU as a drinking sanction. After he had served his segregation sanction, he was returned to the adjacent low security prison where he came from. Sadly, he came back very soon and requested to cell with me again. He came back under a protective order due to being sexually assaulted. It is plainly absurd that to protect a mentally ill sexual assault victim that the Federal Bureau of Prisons places them in segregation, and this without any form of counseling.
The damage to people like him — not to mention mentally sound people in close proximity to them — is incalculable. It’s like taking a child who can’t appreciate their actions and punishing them over and over again even though they don’t understand what they’re doing wrong. Of course, mentally ill prisoners are going to have problems adhering to prison regulations. They require medication and counseling. Placing them in control units just exacerbates their issues. And placing relatively sane people with these badly mentally ill people — people who require hospitalization, not intensive confinement — is equally damaging to them in turn.
Randall Radic: In your opinion, is there ever a legitimate need for such units? What could make the process more just?
Christopher Zoukis: There is no time or place for the intensive confinement units we have today, but there is a need for something more restrictive than general population placement. I think that we all understand the penological concern of keeping order, and the need for punishment for misconduct. I’m not disagreeing with sanctions for violating prison disciplinary codes of conduct, but I do believe that locking a human being in a small cell for extended periods of time, and toying with them during the period, is plainly abusive conduct that the government shouldn’t be sponsoring. It’s doubly offensive when the prisoner being subjected to the abuse at prison guards’ hands is mentally ill.
What prison administrators need to be focusing on is finding ways to make disciplinary proceedings impartial, thorough, and just. Fairness should be inherent in any prison disciplinary proceeding. By effectuating a just disciplinary system, the number of prisoners being recommended for placement in a control unit will plummet. In the prison systems these hearing bodies are plainly an unfortunate joke. Prisoners are charged with misconduct with the only evidence usually a prison guard’s written statement, and the prisoner is then found guilty by the reporting guard’s co-worker. This isn’t a system based on honesty and integrity, but upon convictions and the most expedient path to them.
Randall Radic: What could be done to improve conditions inside Special Housing Units?
Christopher Zoukis: The starting point is to severely limit their usage. Only those who are actively a threat to others or to the institution should be even considered for Special Housing Unit placement. Someone who steals food out of the prison cafeteria to sell or someone who uses the Google Voice service to cut down on the cost of calling their children shouldn’t be placed in a SHU. This is mere misconduct, not a threat to others.
Next, those in control units need to be treated with human dignity. If they need their toilet flushed, toilet paper, soap, or paper, it should be provided without any nonsense. They should also have the meaningful recreation time, counseling, and social interactions that administrators always say they wish to provide but don’t, so that the damage of such intensive confinement can be negated.
And anyone placed in a Special Housing Unit should have a means to earn less restrictive confinement even while still serving a sanction of segregation. This just makes sense and promotes the adherence to rules and order.
Randall Radic: If readers want to learn more about Special Housing Units or control units, where can they go?
Christopher Zoukis: “Prison Legal News” (www.prisonlegalnews.org) regularly reports on control units both on their website and in their monthly magazine. So does Solitary Watch on their website. And I regularly blog at PrisonLawBlog.com about control units and Special Housing Units, in particular. The ACLU’s National Prison Project also does some good work in this arena.