THE RHU, or restricted housing unit, is a separate location within a prison or a jail that houses residents* whom prison staff feel need additional control or punishment or who require private and separate housing for a variety of reasons, including safety. Some entire prisons—supermax facilities—contain only RHUs and no general housing units. However, other prisons operate general and restricted housing units within the same institutional complex. While some states and jurisdictions use other monikers for their restricted housing units, such as administrative segregation (AdSeg) or special, secured, or security housing unit (SHU), the colloquial term solitary confinement is no longer common within correctional institutions. Instead, the US government and many correctional departments prefer the umbrella term RHU as less pejorative and more specific. Additionally, due to overcrowding and suicide prevention efforts, these units often double-bunk residents and the unit is full of staff, making everyone’s time in the RHU decidedly not solitary.
On any given day in the United States, there are between 60,000 and 80,000 individuals locked inside RHUs within prisons and jails. This equates to roughly 20 percent to 40 percent of prison residents spending time in RHUs during their carceral stay, with all residents eligible to serve time in the RHU without exception.1 RHU sentences range from a few to thirty, sixty, or ninety days at the low end to years or decades at the high end. An RHU resident is never guaranteed a specific release date unless they are maxing out (reaching the mandatory end of their prison sentence) and will be released directly to the community. For most residents, a thirty-day RHU sentence for example, may become much longer if the resident gets into any trouble while housed in the RHU or if, as their RHU release date approaches, there are no available beds in general population or the institution is short-staffed in a way that may inhibit, slow, or prevent resident relocation.
Many of the folks housed within RHUs are purported as the “worst of the worst,” yet numerous reports and studies find RHU residents often receive RHU confinement for nonviolent acts including possessing contraband (such as cell phones or inappropriate pictures), screening positive for drugs or alcohol, or even for being disrespectful to staff or residents in the general institutional population. Individuals sent to RHUs as punishment for misconduct are often placed on a disciplinary custody (DC) status. Additionally, many individuals end up in the RHU as a form of protective custody. This occurs either to guard them from the general prison population if they are in danger of harm because, for example, they are transgender, are gay or lesbian, or are charged with a sex offense, or to protect the general population and/or staff from them if they have, for example, high-notoriety gang affiliations and/or have hurt or killed a correctional staff member, a law enforcement officer, or another resident. These individuals are housed in RHUs on administrative custody (AC) or protective custody (PC) status. Individuals housed in RHUs, particularly those with DC status, are not generally afforded any opportunities for programming or treatment services from prison staff or volunteers. AC-status residents may begin or continue correspondence (educational) courses, but because of property rules or staff decisions, DC-status residents often do not have access to these courses and their accompanying materials while in the RHU. RHU residents on DC status are also not allowed to work at any prison job while housed in the RHU and may, in fact, lose any prison job they had prior to RHU placement.
Sentencing to the RHU from the general population is an internal prison process that occurs without attorneys, judges, or any outside assistance. As a result, residents and staff report that most RHU hearings within prisons end with guilty verdicts and RHU placement. Additionally, the decision to release an individual from the RHU to the general population occurs via a performance review committee (PRC)—another internal institutional process. This process pulls residents from their cells about every thirty days for a formal evaluation in front of a team including correctional and psychological staff. It includes a case review of the resident’s performance within the RHU to assess appropriateness for release. Like RHU placement, this process occurs without any legal or other representation for the resident. Numerous residents report not understanding this process and the subsequent decisions and consequences.2 Many residents also report their time in the RHU is extended at these meetings. Staff generally concur with these sentiments.
* Throughout this book, we use the term resident to represent current, not lifetime status in custody, and to acknowledge individual rights; we use the terms inmate and prisoner throughout this book when we use the words of other scholars, residents, media, and prison staff.