In January of this year, the Wisconsin prison system implemented new policies which will revamp the way in which solitary confinement is used as a correction measure against prisoners violating prison rules. While the Legislature endorsed the changes, guards, people in prison, and prison activists say that it remains unclear whether the adjustments means fewer people will spend less time isolation.
The Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) holds approximately 1,500 people of the state’s 22,000 prisoners in some form of segregation on any given day, sometimes for months, years or even decades at a time. According to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, solitary is routinely used to punish individuals for violations of prison regulations. A 2013 report by the Association of State Correctional Administrators found 118 people in Wisconsin correctional facilities were held in solitary confinement for over two years, 14 of whom were kept in isolation for over a decade. According to a 2009 Wisconsin state audit, almost half of all people held in solitary suffer from serious mental illness.
At Waupan Correctional Institution, a state prison 55 miles of Madison, cells are about the size of a bathroom with a small window. People in the unit are held in 23-hour-a-day lockdown with no contact with the external world aside from that with corrections officers — and incoming mail if they are lucky. According to The Cap Times, the unit combines severe isolation and frequent use of force on people confined in the prison. In fact, two people held in solitary confinement at Waupun have committed suicide between December 2013 and July 2014. The story states:
The use-of-force reports release for Waupan from 2012 and most of 2013 include six cases in which was force was deployed against inmates in segregation while they were engaged in acts of self-harm or attempted suicide.
One inmate cut his wrist and forearm with metal from his glasses and was pepper sprayed. Others were tasered or sprayed after taking pills or attempting to hang themselves with a bedsheet or pillow case.
Waupun’s isolation unit has elicited numerous grievances from prisoners alleging abuse by officers. Since 2011, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism found 40 physical or psychological mistreatment claims of people in isolation, comprising 33 prisoners since 2011. Officials deny any instances of abuse, however, instead accusing the prisoners of fabricating claims of mistreatment.
Secretary of Correction Calls for Change; Advocates Call for Clarity
Wisconsin secretary of Correction Ed Wall has stated that he would like to reduce the use of solitary in the state. In an April 2014 message to his staff, Wall writes: “Are we placing inmates in segregation because we are mad at them? And if we are, does this help our inmates or does it make us any safer?”
Wall’s communication with staff, obtained by Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, stated the DOC would be working with “scientists, scholars and mental health professionals from across the country” to outline new approaches, recognizing that the topic “will undoubtedly touch nerves with staff for a variety of reasons.”
According to WisconsinWatch.org:
Despite these internal communications, the DOC has been publicly tight-lipped about policy changes regarding its use of solitary confinement. Wall declined an interview request and agency spokeswoman Joy Staab has declined to answer questions about specific changes.
The DOC took more than two months to fulfill an Aug. 1 request from the Center for records on the matter, then provided only records up until the time of the request. Still, nearly 250 pages of records were released…
Wall went on to muse that segregation has at times become “a method to isolate and punish inmates as a form of internal judge, jury and executioner. Depriving people of outside contact, personal property, programming, etc., seems to focus on doing psychological harm rather than achieve desirable goals.”
Wall also wrote, “Courts have repeatedly found that forcing prisoners with mental illness to undergo solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. How would our placements be viewed by the courts?”
According to Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR), “[Wall’s memo] questions the effectiveness of putting inmates in isolation cells for as long as a year for non-violent rule-breaking, such as not taking their medications. The memo also suggests using alternative punishments that simply reduce a prisoner’s privileges and offer incentives for changed behavior instead of punishment.
The memo, which Wall requested not be disclosed, included instances of solitary being used “harshly and punitively.” In one case, he said an individual was sentenced to 180 days for having kitchen spices in his cell and wondered how this had “anything to do with the safety and security of the institutions.”
Others, however, feel the proposed changes are unclear and should be more extensive. According to WPR, Kate Edwards, a Buddhist prison chaplain who advocates for people held in segregation, says ” the new rules actually increase the number of rule infractions that can land an inmate in segregation for a year”:
[Edwards] said the new rules also seem to ignore the plight of mentally ill inmates. One phrase in the new rules requires consideration of an inmate’s serious mental illness during hearings on whether to send them to segregation. She said that’s not enough when international experts agree that solitary confinement is more likely to make a mental illness worse.
New Guidelines Call for Limits on Use of Solitary Confinement in Wisconsin
As concerns over the use of solitary confinement in Wisconsin prisons grow, DOC officials are taking measures to overhaul the state’s use of the practice. According to CBS WDJT Milwaukee, the Wisconsin DOC has issued the following statement: “The Wisconsin Department of Corrections has been working on restrictive housing reform for several years, which has included programming and psychological staff. The Department remains focused on our mission of protecting the public, our staff and those in change.”
In a September 2014 memo to staff, Cathy Jess, administrator of the DOC’s division of adult institution, writes:
The disciplinary process should be used as a means to motivate the inmate to alter their negative behavior, with long-term correction of the behavior as the end goal… Long-term segregation placements have been shown to be ineffective in terms of discipline and do not serve our corrective or rehabilitative goals.
According to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Jess’s memo signals change on the part of the DOC’s current disciplinary code, which has been in place since 2001. While officials have yet to discuss any specifics and any potential changes remain unclear, Jess is on record as stating that the new rules are “an excellent opportunity to focus on making positive changes” to the state’s use of segregation. The story further states that the new code calls for expediting the process of enacting discipline for minor violations, while “upholding the ideals of rehabilitation and fairness.”
According to a December 2015 story by Wisconsin Public Radio, new regulations were planned to go into effect in January of this year. The story states that the policies “will change the way the Wisconsin prison system uses solitary confinement to discipline inmates who break the rules.” WPR adds:
The Legislature approved the changes [last] spring, but correctional officers, inmates and prison reform advocates say it’s still not clear whether the changes mean fewer inmates will spend less time in what is commonly called “the hole.”
Training for correctional officers in enforcing the new rules has just begun and inmates received new rule books this month…
But, Brian Cunningham, the head of the correctional officers union, calls the new rules an effort to placate troublesome inmates. He said officers who must now enforce the new rules weren’t asked for input in designing them, and he’s convinced training young, white officers to have the kinds of conversations with inmates the new rules call for will be next to impossible.
“You cannot have some 18-year-old, non-graduated yokel talking to some 40-year-old, inner city, black inmate. It doesn’t work,” he said.
According to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), the average yearly cost of holding a person in solitary confinement is $50,000 — double the cost of housing a prisoner in the general population. Reducing Wisconsin’s use of the practice by half could save $70 million over the next two years, a needed cost cutting measure in light of the state’s current prison budget crisis. According to Kenosha News, the costs of incarceration in the state have risen dramatically from 1990 to 2011, from under $200 million to more than $1.3 billion, respectively.
Movement to End Use of Long-Term Solitary
Faith-based organization WISDOM, a statewide group of congregation-based community organizations, is drawing attention to the use of segregation in Wisconsin. As part of the advocacy group’s efforts, the organization recently displayed a solitary cell replica in the lobby of Marquette University’s Raynor Library, attracting students and others interested in getting a taste of what those held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails experience.
The Journal Sentinel describes the segregation cell replica:
The gray walls are made of wood but look like cinder block and the stainless steel toilet and sink, mattress pad and door with small window and slot to slide a food tray are accurate. The 6 feet by 12 feet exhibit was made by the theater department at Madison’s Edgewood College…
An iPad and headphones are proffered to anyone who wants to hear the sounds of incarceration — the audio comes from a Frontline story on solitary confinement.
According to one event attendant, “One of the things people find so frightening is the sound. You can talk about solitary confinement, but when you sit in the place it’s quite a different experience.”
The story goes on to say that visitors “have the option of going in [the segregation cell replica] only with a Bible or Qur’an and pen and piece of paper, just like actual prisoners.” During the event, visitors are asked if they would like to sign a petition calling for changes in the way solitary confinement is used in Wisconsin prisons and jails, specifically “limiting time to 15 days and ending incarceration for people under 18.”
In a video describing the mock cell’s construction, Kate Edwards said, that after ministering to people in isolation, “I took a vow to make visible the torture and the abuse that I was seeing in how we make use of solitary confinement.”
• Federal investigators have concluded that Baltimore City illegally placed teens in solitary confinement. One youth spent 143 days in isolation.
• At a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said that “solitary confinement literally drives men mad.” He and Justice Stephen Breyer called for reforms to the criminal justice system.
• Aakash Dalal, 22, has been held in solitary confinement for three years as he awaits trial for allegedly firebombing four synagogues in New Jersey. The state’s Supreme Court is considering a change of venue in the case.
• NET, Nebraska’s PBS & NPR stations, published an interview with Scott Frakes, Nebraska’s new director of Department of Correctional Services. “Today, roughly 700 inmates are held in some form of segregation, out of a population of 5300. So that is a pretty significant ratio. I would want to see that number – a couple of years from now – I would hope to see that number at least halved, if not less,” he said.
• The Vera Institute of Justice announced that it will work in collaboration with jails and prisons in five states with the aim of reducing the use of solitary confinement. Nebraska, Oregon, and North Carolina, along with jails in New York City and Middlesex County, New Jersey, will engage in the two-year process.
More than two years ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, asked the U.S. State Department for permission to visit individuals in solitary confinement in supermax prisons and isolation units. He is still waiting for a response. Recently, our colleague Sarah Shourd interviewed Méndez for an article in the Daily Beast that describes his futile quest for permission to witness America’s domestic black sites, as well as his recent visit (no thanks to the State Department) to California’s Pelican Bay.
In 2010, Juan Mendez was appointed Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Degrading and Inhumane Treatment by the United Nations. His mandate is wide in size and scope—to expose and document torture wherever it exists on the planet today.
Since the beginning of his mandate Mendez has made criticizing the overuse of solitary confinement a priority. In 2011, he issued a report stating that 22 or 23 hours a day alone in a prison cell for more than 15 days at a time can cause permanent, lasting psychological damage and can constitute torture.
This problem, he emphasized, is particularly severe in the U.S., where prisoners are routinely held under such conditions for months, years and even decades at a time. Many have never committed a violent crime.
Fast-forward five years. The U.S. government has yet to grant Mendez access to a single isolation pod in any U.S. prison. The clock is ticking. Mendez has a mere 20 months left of his term, and he has yet been able to substantiate his reports with a firsthand investigation.
“The U.S. was voted into the Human Rights Council—a position that carries with it an obligation to cooperate,” he says. When he speaks, Mendez wears a look of weary determination befitting of his post.
“I’m disappointed to still be waiting for the State Department to respond to my request. I’ve been waiting over two years.”
“That fact that he hasn’t received a response is contemptible,” says Laura Rovner, legal expert on prison conditions from University of Denver. “It puts the U.S. in the company of countries like Syria, Pakistan, and Russia that also have been unresponsive to requests for country visits.”
“Given the length of the delay,” Rovner continues. “You have to wonder about the reason, whether it’s motivated by concerns about what the Special Rapporteur willfind inside these prisons.”
Then suddenly, last December, Mendez was allowed access to California’s Pelican Bay State Prison—a facility known for keeping inmates in isolation indefinitely in its Security Housing Unit (SHU).
This visit did not come about through the official channels Mendez had long been appealing to, however. Instead, he found a way in to one of the most notorious prisons in the country through a kind of backdoor.
Read the full article on the Daily Beast site.
Supreme Court Justice Kennedy: Corrections System Is “Broken” and “Solitary Confinement Literally Drives Men Mad”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy on Monday used long-term solitary confinement as evidence that the “idea of total incarceration just isn’t working.” Solitary “literally drives men mad,” Kennedy said, noting that more humane alternatives are employed elsewhere in the world.
Kennedy’s comments were made during a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the 2016 Budget Request for the Supreme Court. In response to a question from Arkansas Republican Steve Womack about prison overcrowding, Kennedy made the following statement. (To watch, click on the photo and go to minute 29.)
I think that the corrections system is one of the most overlooked, misunderstood institutions—functions—that we have in our entire government. In law school I never heard about corrections. Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt, innocence, adjudication process. And once the adjudication process is over we have no interest in corrections. Doctors know more about the corrections system—and psychiatrists—than we do. Nobody looks at it. California, my home state, had more than 187,000 people in jail, at a cost of over $30,000 a prisoner. Compared that with the amount they gave to schoolchildren, about $3,500 a year.”
And this idea of total incarceration just isn’t working–and it’s not humane. The federal government build—what do they call them—supermax prisons, with isolation cells. The prisoner we had come before our court a few weeks ago…had been in an isolation cell according to the attorney—I haven’t checked it out—for 25 years. Solitary confinement literally drives men mad.
Kennedy then referred to a character in the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities, who spent 20 years in isolation in the Bastille.
Even Dr. Manette had his workbench and his cobblers tools in Tower 105 North, and even he lost his mind. We simply have to look at this system we have. The Europeans have systems for difficult, recalcitrant prisoners in which they have them in a group of three or four, and they can stay together with three or four, and they have human contact. And it seems to work much better. But we haven’t given nearly enough study, nearly enough thought, nearly enough investigative resources to looking at our corrections system. In many respects, I think it’s broken.
Kennedy’s most famous tretise on the humane treatment of prisoners came in his majority opinion in the 2011 Brown v Plata case, where he wrote: “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” The Eighth Amendment determines whether a punishment is cruel and unusual based on “evolving standards of decency.” Now it seems that those standards may be evolving in the view of a key voter on the U.S. Supreme Court.
• ThinkProgress published an article about one unexpected reason why Republican support for prison reform is increasing. “Conservatives are increasingly joining the fight to end solitary confinement on the basis that it constitutes a form of torture and undermines principles of morality and personhood.”
• Solitary Watch’s Sarah Shourd covered the release of Juan Mendez’s findings from his tour of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, a facility known for keeping individuals in indefinite solitary confinement. “There’s no doubt in my mind this is torture,” Mendez concluded.
• A federal judge issued a strong ruling against currently and formerly incarcerated plaintiffs, in an ongoing lawsuit intended to challenge the Bureau of Prisons’ Communication Management Units. “Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote that the Bureau of Prisons’ units do not violate inmates’ rights because the additional restrictions are ‘limited in nature’ compared to ordinary prison units, and are far better than solitary confinement.”
• The Texas Observer published a second article in a series entitled “Letters from Death Row,” this one focused on the effect of solitary confinement. The author writes, “Long periods of solitary confinement can result in loss of speech,” and quotes from a survey participant on the inside. “When you live in an environment where nearly everyone is hostile to you, you learn to say less and less until you arrive at the point where vocalization seems increasingly odd to you.”
• A US District Judge has ruled in favor of several plaintiffs named in an ongoing class action lawsuit against the use of solitary confinement in California prisons. Incarcerated individuals who were in long term-term isolation at Pelican Bay – but have since been transferred – will be permitted to remain eligible as class members in the case, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights.
• Senator Dick Durbin was interviewed on Peoria Public Radio. “Ninety-five percent of the people who go to prison end up out of prison someday, and if you turn a person out who’s been damaged mentally by the segregation, then it’s a risk to everyone else outside, once they’re released,” he said.
• Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, accused United States authorities of refusing him entry to state and federal prisons, particularly those facilities that regularly utilize solitary confinement. “The numbers [of people in solitary] are staggering but even worse is the length of terms…It is not uncommon for people to spend 25, 30 years and even more in solitary confinement,” he said.
• The Hill blog published an op-ed by Antonio Ginatta, advocacy director for the US program at Human Rights Watch, in response to the internal review of confinement practices recently published by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). “The path away from prisoner isolation is clear, and it’s time for BOP to start walking it,” he writes.
• A federal appeals court has reversed a 2013 ruling, thus allowing the state of Virginia to automatically house those on death row in solitary confinement. “The district court, perhaps correctly, described the isolation that characterizes Virginia’s death row as ‘dehumanizing.’ But the Supreme Court has long held … that state correctional officials have broad latitude to set prison conditions as they see fit,” wrote Judge Motz in the majority opinion.
• A federal judge has ruled that Washington violated the Constitution by holding people with mental illness in jails for weeks or even months while they awaited competency evaluations. Many of these individuals were held in solitary confinement during this time period.
• Debate rages on in Dane County, Wisconsin, about how to proceed with renovations to the local jail. Sheriff David Mahoney and others have called for the creation of additional special needs housing in the jail, since many people with mental illness are currently housed in solitary confinement; activists with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition, meanwhile, have maintained that jail renovations will not solve the human rights and racial justice issues that produce overincarceration.
• Fusion published a five-minute video by Molly Crabapple entitled, “Why solitary confinement is a form of modern-day torture.”
• The Guardian published an article about Tony Lester, who had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and killed himself in an Arizona jail after being placed in solitary confinement and allegedly receiving sub-standard care.
• Defense attorneys for Albert Woodfox – the Angola 3 member currently awaiting a third trial in the 1972 stabbing death of a prison guard – argued that he should be released on bail. Woodfox has spent several decades in solitary confinement and all his previous convictions in the murder have been overturned.
• A New Mexico bill to limit the use of solitary confinement was tabled by the state’s House Judiciary Committee in a 6-5 vote.
• Solitary Watch co-founder James Ridgeway was interviewed on Ralph Nader’s radio hour.
• Vox’s German Lopez published an investigative feature entitled, “Solitary confinement is terrible for youth – and some places are trying to get rid of it.”
• Nikko Jenkins, who killed four Omaha residents in August 2013 shortly after his release directly from solitary confinement, has been declared competent to stand trial. According to the article, “Jenkins told a judge Monday that he wanted to be declared competent so he could face a death-penalty panel and be transferred from solitary confinement to death row, where he would at least have the company of his fellow killers.”
• Writing for Truth-Out, Hannah Gold examines “A Call for Community Review of Rikers Island Jail,” including community mobilization against the newly established 250-bed Enhanced Segregated Housing (ESH) Unit.
• A group of individuals are on hunger strike at Reeves County Detention Center, according to a local outlet. The individuals allege they stopped eating after they were put in solitary confinement, in retaliation for “seeking legal help in light of a recent lawsuit.”
• Lawmakers in Illinois are pushing for the re-opening of Tamms prison, the notorious Supermax facility shuttered years ago. Representative Teri Bryant filed a resolution for the governor to reopen the facility.
A long-awaited audit of the use of solitary and other forms of isolated confinement in the federal Bureau of Prison (BOP) recommends minor reforms while affirming the overall legitimacy and efficacy of a system that holds more than 10,000 people in extreme isolation.
At 242 pages in length, the Federal Bureau of Prisons: Special Housing Unit Review and Assessment provides a wealth of detail (though relatively little quantitative data), and a number of obvious, highly circumscribed findings. It notes inadequacies in mental health care and “reentry preparedness” for people in isolated confinement, and criticizes the BOP for some inefficiencies and inconsistencies in its policies and practices. But as an overall critique of solitary in the federal system, it is vastly inferior to an earlier report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which found that the BOP did not know whether its use of “segregated housing” had any impact on prison safety, how it affected the individuals who endure it, or how much it all cost American taxpayers.
The nature of the assessment should surprise no one. While it describes itself as “an independent, outside review,” the audit was commissioned in 2013 by the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the BOP, and carried out by a CNA, a large defense contractor with a sideline in corrections. As stated in the report on the audit, “The CNA project team was composed of eight former state correctional system directors, four former deputy correctional system directors, two psychiatrists, and two PhD-level criminal justice system researchers. All team members had substantial experience in the management and evaluation of restrictive housing units.”
In November 2013, as the audit got underway, the leaders of this team met with representatives of advocacy organizations working on the issue of solitary confinement, including the ACLU, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, CURE, Vera Institute for Justice, National Association for Mental Illness, and Prison Fellowship. According to individuals present at that meeting, the organizations expressed their hope that they would remain in touch throughout the audit. But they were offered no further opportunities for consultation and received no response to subsequent requests to give input.
Submitted to the BOP in December but released to the public only last Thursday, the report reveals a fatal flaw in the first of its “key findings”: “The general conditions of confinement in restricted housing units are consistent with national regulations and standards.” In other words, the audit used as its measuring stick the “national standards” of a country that is an extreme outlier when it comes to the use of long-term solitary confinement, which is rare in the rest of the developed world and has been denounced by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and a host of human rights groups.
In the end, the audit measures the BOP largely against itself. Taking as its baseline 2011, the first year for which complete data on “segregation populations” was available, the report notes a 31 percent drop those populations. The biggest drop was in the Special Housing Units (SHUs) used largely for disciplinary confinement, and is based on a “self-reported estimate” from the BOP.
As of June 2014, 10,747 people remained in isolated confinement in the Bureau’s SHUs, Special Management Units (SMUs), and at the Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility in Florence, Colorado, which holds prisoners in the most extreme isolation (and where CNA was banned from interviewing the most severely isolated individuals). This figure comprises one in twenty prisoners of the people in BOP custody.
In another section, the report compares the number of disciplinary violations committed by prisoners “Before” being placed in isolation with those committed “During and After” isolation. The results, unsurprisingly, show that people being held in concrete cells for 23 hours a day are less likely to commit infractions, some of the most common of which are “refusing to obey order” and “engaging in sex acts.” It does not question the usefulness of placing people in isolation to begin with for reasons such as these.
As for the impact of solitary on the people who endure it, the study relies on interviews with a “representative” sampling of individuals held at the facilities studied, some of whom were questioned in the presence of staff. There is little reference to the growing body of evidence showing the permanent damage to the brain caused by periods of isolation, or the panoply of symptoms displayed by people in solitary, even those without a history of mental illness. There is no reference to the men at ADX who, according to a current lawsuit, “interminably wail, scream and bang on the walls of their cells. Some mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, writing utensils and whatever other objects they can obtain. Some swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass and other dangerous objects.” In fact, the report finds inconclusive the charge that solitary worsens mental illness, and that it increases rather than decreases prison violence.
The lengthy report will require further study and analysis. But its overall aim seems clear: To quiet serious criticism with a series of modest recommendations, while reifying the overall system of punishment within punishment. Many of the recommendations reflect plans the BOP has already set in motion, such as improving mental health care and moving more people with mental illness out of the SHUs and SMUs to special isolation units designed for that purpose. The audit also recommends slight reductions in the duration of some stays in solitary, and better treatment of those who are isolated for reasons of protective custody.
Overall, the recommendations align well with statements made by Senator Dick Durbin, whose 2012 Congressional hearing on solitary confinement apparently set the audit process in motion. Durbin has emphasized in his public statements that while some people—including youth and individuals with mental illness—do not belong in solitary confinement, other people most definitely do belong there. In a press release following the publication of the report, Durbin stated: “The independent report released by the BOP today will inform our next steps as we move towards meaningful reform of solitary confinement practices in our prisons. I commend Director Samuels for agreeing to undergo this assessment, and for his commitment to continuing to reform BOP’s solitary confinement policies and practices.” As we have reported many times, Durbin has been instrumental to plans for a second supermax prison in his home state of Illinois, which will significantly increase both ADX and SMU capacity for the BOP.
The National Religious Campaign Against Torture—one of the groups that was consulted at the start of the audit, and then ignored—had stronger words for the report. “NRCAT and our faith partners across the country have been calling for a universal prohibition of prolonged solitary confinement exceeding 15 days,” said the group’s director of U.S. prisons policy, Rev. Laura Markle Downton, in a press release. “Recommendations—like those contained in this report—that do not prohibit long-term isolation in favor of rehabilitation and treatment are inadequate in the face of both science of the mind and the ethics of human dignity, which condemn such conditions as torture.”
This audit, if nothing else, shows what is wrong with “independent” investigations done on the same government agencies who hire and pay the investigators. And it highlights the need for truly independent oversight of the use of solitary confinement in particular, and of the prison system in general. The closest thing we have in this country may be the GAO, which will now see its highly critical report dismissed in favor of this more “comprehensive” audit.
What we need are independent bodies outside the prison system, like the prison inspectors, ombudspeople, and citizen monitoring boards found in other countries. We need the U.S. government to grant the request of UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez to visit ADX, and lift the ban on allowing journalists into ADX or any solitary confinement units. Then we might have reports that do more than tinker around the edges of torture.
• Mic published an article entitled, “The Horrifying Truth of Life in Solitary Confinement From People Who Lived It.”
• According to Mother Jones, those incarcerated at Willacy County Correctional Center in Texas – the prison where there was a recent uprising – endured deplorable conditions, including the excessive use of solitary confinement. “Inmates were placed in the hole simply for requesting new shoes or food. Prisoners also reported that being in solitary drove them to hurt themselves or attempt suicide.”
• The Washington Post published an in-depth article into the conditions of confinement experienced by the alleged Boston Bomber in an article entitled, “Can life in prison be worse than death? Some Tsarnaev jurors think so.”
• A New Mexico man held in solitary confinement for several months and reportedly denied mental health treatment has settled a federal lawsuit for $2.9 million. Meanwhile, another lawsuit was filed in the state challenging the classification of an individual as member of a “security threat group,” which led to his placement in isolation.
• Discussion of a New Mexico bill that would limit the use of solitary at the state’s prisons and jails was suddenly shut down in the House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee. According to Four Corners News, “Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque, accused a fellow committee member of being out of order and adjourned the meeting before a vote could be taken.”
• The Huffington Post published an article about the experiences of incarcerated women, particularly focusing on those placed in solitary confinement.
The following account is by Nicole Natschke, who is currently held in the segregation unit at Illinois’s Logan Correctional Facility, about three hours south of Chicago. Logan was repurposed from a men’s prison to imprison women from the shuttered Dwight and Lincoln Correctional Centers. The prison, which has a rated capacity of 1,106, currently holds 1,950 people. A December 2014 report by the John Howard Association described the dismal conditions at the “overcrowded [and] underresourced” prison.
Natschke was originally scheduled to be released in December 2014 after 14 months in prison, but her segregation sentence extended her time in prison. Shortly after her arrival in segregation, a woman in the adjoining cell committed suicide. Her account, titled “Solitary Confinement Is Torture,” shows that even a few weeks or months in solitary confinement can have dire consequences on people’s physical and mental well-being. Nicole Natschke turned twenty-one while behind bars, and will celebrate her twenty-second birthday in solitary this year. She can receive letters at the following address: Nicole Natschke, R88949, Logan Correctional Center, PO Box 1000, Lincoln, IL 62656. —Victoria Law
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My name is Nicole Natschke. I am currently housed in segregation at Logan Correctional Facility in Illinois. Here at this fine institution, we are locked down 24 hours a day. We shower every four days maybe. If we act up, they sometimes refuse to shower you, although that’s against regulations. I’ve gone 12 days without a shower. Now that we have a new warden, the rules have changed. Before she started working here, for example, you would not be segregated for an unauthorized movement. Now, you must do two months in this miserable place. You would think segregation is supposed to be for violent offenders? No, now everyone comes to segregation. My cellmate, Gina, was feeling homicidal and asked for a mental health evaluation. Instead, they threw her in segregation and said she refused housing. When you refuse housing, they give you three months segregation. Gina has been in segregation for nine days and still has no sheets or blankets because they lost some of her property. She sleeps on the cold, plastic mattress. I share one of my blankets. All these non-violent “offenses” and people are doing a very long time in segregation. Gina has also never, not once, gotten into trouble in the four years she’s been incarcerated! You want to know what violent offenses carry? They carry the least amount of time in segregation. If you get into a fight, you’ll do 15 days in seg. If you assault someone, you’ll do 30 days. Everything non-violent carries more than 30 days in seg!
You can’t even ask for mental help because they’ll throw you in segregation. I am in here because I had a seizure and was handcuffed and thrown into a wall by a lieutenant. I was not supposed to be handcuffed because I just had a seizure. I flipped out, panicked and spit on him. I’ve been in segregation six months. I should’ve went home December 3, 2014, but they are keeping me here until August 3, 2015. I have to be in segregation the whole time. The past six months have been hell. I’ve seen my friend commit suicide next door to me. While the police were waiting for her body to be transferred, they made jokes about how now there’s more bed space. My friend—RIP Shortybang—shouldn’t have even been in segregation. The police ignored her cries for help. They still ignore people when people say they are suicidal or homicidal. They don’t see us as someone’s daughter, mother, or sister…They see us as a number, as bed space, as criminals. I’ve talked to many women in this prison and I haven’t met one yet who hasn’t been abused, raped, etc., in their life. I’ve heard the worst stories. I don’t know about other women, but when I’m in segregation, alone, locked in this six foot by ten foot cell for 24 hours per day, I start thinking about my life. I have a very messed-up past. Mainly when I was younger, but that wasn’t that long ago.
I will turn twenty-two in seg on April 6th. Long periods of solitary confinement are not healthy, especially for women like me who have severe PTSD and depression. I’ve attempted suicide so many times I lost count! Now what makes anyone think it’s okay to put me alone in a cell for over a year? You might think I’m being treated by a psychiatrist? Yes, but she refuses to put me on the correct medications. I see the psychiatrist through a TV once every two months, maybe, and she refuses to look at my records and see that I need certain medications. So, if I’m having severe issues just trying to survive day by day, I know others are as well. That’s why so many people are yelling constantly that they’re suicidal. This is a very depressing place.
Another serious issue, medical…I have been begging to see the doctor for six months since I got in segregation. I wrote grievances about health care in segregation. I hope and pray that things will change back here. Even something as simple as how officers treat us would change a lot. I’ll do whatever I can from the inside and hope people listen to what I have to say. Just because I made one mistake in life doesn’t mean I deserve this suffering. I am somebody’s daughter. I have a great family. I should be home. I want to stop this from happening to others.
To help us keep in touch with thousands of people in solitary confinement, some of whom have no other contact with the world outside their cells, please consider a donation to our Lifelines to Solitary project.
• The New York Times magazine published an article entitled The Shame of Solitary Confinement, which focuses on what’s happening in one Southern state. “Solitary — in theory, a punishment for the worst of the worst, inmates who pose an immediate threat to others — has become a routine disciplinary tool, used in ways for which it was never intended. The good news is that this is beginning to change — even, it turns out, in South Carolina.”
• South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling announced that he has ordered a cap on the use of “disciplinary detention.” There will now be a 60-day maximum placement in disciplinary segregation, except for those believed those a threat to others.
• The UK’s Daily Mail published an article about Anthony Graves, who spent twelve years in solitary confinement after being wrongfully convicted and sent to death row. He was released in 2010.
• The debate within the American Institute of Architectures (AIA) – about whether to “censure members who design solitary-confinement cells and death chambers – was covered by The New York Times. The AIA rejected a petition on the matter in December.
• David Shapiro, a law professor at Northwestern, published an op-ed in Crain’s Chicago Business about the post 9/11 human rights violations that have occurred on American soil – including the use of solitary confinement. “The ‘war on terror’ has driven a transformation of federal incarceration in less exotic locales like downstate Marion, Terre Haute, Ind., and New York.”
• The Montana state legislature introduced a bill that would ban the use of solitary confinement for some incarcerated individuals and restrict it for others. “We have to be realistic about how to interact with human beings to ensure they remain human beings,” said the Representative who introduced the bill. (Covered by the Great Falls Tribune).
• A federal judge approved a settlement in a lawsuit filed against the Arizona Department of Corrections by the American Civil Liberties Union and Prison Law Office. Under the settlement, the DOC must provide specific minimum out-of-cell hours for those in maximum security settings, and also institute significant changes to health care on the inside. A bill to reform the use of solitary in Arizona successfully passed out of the House of Representatives Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee.
• WABC Eyewitness News conducted an exclusive tour of the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit, the new isolation unit set to open at Rikers next week. The unit has come under scrutiny from prison advocates for extending the use of solitary confinement at the jail complex.
Ashley Smith was just 19 when she died in her solitary confinement cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, in October 2007. As she had many times before, Smith tied a ligature around her neck and tightened it. For twenty long minutes, a crowd of prison guards stood watch from outside her door, waiting and filming as her face turned a purplish-black. By the time they entered Smith’s cell, it was too late to save her. Smith had spent more than 1,000 days in isolation.
Six years later—in December, 2013—a Coroner’s Inquest determined that her death constituted a homicide. This past December, the Canadian government issued a formal response to the inquest, refusing to put in place many of the jury’s 104 recommendations. This move has sparked a national debate in Canada about the use of solitary confinement. Two lawsuits, both filed since the government released its response, allege that the Correctional Service’s use of isolation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
Preventable Death Ruled a Homicide
Ashley Smith’s encounters with the law and state services began when she was a young teenager. She cycled in and out of secure youth facilities after her first arrest at 15, for throwing crab apples at a postal worker. Once she aged out was sent into the adult system, Smith’s life took on a new degree of instability; she was transferred 17 times during the course of her 11 months in federal custody in order to accommodate “administrative issues such as cell availability and staff fatigue. Smith also received inconsistent mental health care despite demonstrating self-injurious behavior and voicing suicidal ideation.
After Smith’s death, the warden and four correctional officers directly involved in the incident were fired, and the officers were charged with negligent homicide. The charges were subsequently dropped, however, and all four COs were eventually reinstated to their positions. Union representatives insisted that the COs had been scapegoated by senior management, who had allegedly given direct orders for the guards to ignore Smith’s behavior, and not intervene as long as she was still breathing.
Although Smith died of self-strangulation, a coroner’s jury later ruled the incident a homicide, determining that she could not be held responsible for what happened. Coroner’s inquests are formal court proceedings in which a five-person jury hears from witnesses and determines the facts of a death, but without establishing guilt or fault. In Ontario, where Smith died, it is mandatory to hold a Coroner’s Inquest for all individuals who pass away in the custody of the Correctional Service.
The jury also put forward a series of recommendations for the Correctional Service of Canada, including stringent caps on the amount of time individuals can spend in isolation and a complete abolition of “indefinite solitary confinement.” Nearly a year later, in December 2014, the Canadian government published its formal response. They asserted “that the government is unable to fully support [the inquest’s recommendations] without causing undue risk to the safe management of the federal correctional system.”
The government also refuted the inquest’s characterization of segregation practices. “The term solitary confinement is not accurate or applicable within the Canadian federal correctional system. Canadian law and correctional policy allows for the use of administrative segregation for the shortest period of time necessary, in limited circumstances, and only when there are no reasonable, safe alternatives.”
In an interview with The Canadian Press, one of the lawyers who represented Smith’s family lambasted the government’s refusal to honor the inquest’s language. “They’re playing the Orwellian game…That bodes very poorly for them honestly dealing with this crisis in the system—that they can’t even call it what it is.”
These sentiments were echoed by Ashley Smith’s mother, Coralee. “I don’t see any real changes… segregation is basically going to stay the same.”
Two Lawsuits Filed
Reactions to the Canadian government’s position extend beyond Smith’s family and their legal team. Since December, two separate lawsuits have been filed by advocacy groups alleging that the use of solitary confinement in Canada amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and is thus unconstitutional.
On January 19, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the John Howard Society of Canada filed a lawsuit against the Attorney General of Canada, arguing “that the solitary confinement regime leads to prisoner suffering and deaths, deprives prisoners of fundamental procedural protections and is discriminatory against both mentally ill and Aboriginal prisoners.”
About one week later, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies filed a similar claim, set to be heard in the Ontario Supreme Court. “Canadian prisons subject inmates to solitary confinement without any limit on duration, without any guarantee of independent review, and without any consideration of the frailties of the inmate,” a Counsel in the petition states in the press release announcing the suit. “The ready, routine and prolonged use of solitary confinement in Canadian penitentiaries is unjustified, unethical, and ultimately, unconstitutional”.
The Surprising Truth About Solitary in Canada
Stories like Smith’s are story all too familiar in the American context. This past December, a Rikers Island corrections officer named Terrence Pendergrass was convicted on a civil rights charge, after a jury found he had ignored the pleas of an incarcerated man with mental illness who had swallowed a toxic soap ball. One officer testified that when he alerted Pendergrass that the prisoner was distressed, he was told, “don’t bother me unless someone is dead.” Jason Echevarria, 25, passed away shortly thereafter.
Most Americans—and Canadians—might be surprised to see any parallels between the conditions of confinement in the two countries. “Canadians tend to think of the U.S. as having a much more hardline approach to criminal justice, and to be harsher to people who are incarcerated,” said BCCLA Counsel Laura Track in an email to Solitary Watch.
“However, current ‘tough on crime’ policies being implemented in Canada, such as mandatory minimum sentences and changes to rules governing parole eligibility, for example, demonstrate a very regressive approach to criminal justice policy in this country,” Track added. About one in four people held in Canada’s federal prison system has spent some time in solitary confinement.
Track and other advocates have contended that the United States and Canada are actually diverging in their use of isolation—with American prisons and jails generally relying less on the practice, but their northern neighbor doing just the opposite. Over the last five years, the number of federal prisoners in solitary confinement in Canada has increased by 6 percent. Little information on changes to the number of individuals held in isolation in U.S. prisons is publically available, but some evidence suggests the use of isolation is in slow decline. While the ratio of Canadian prisoners in solitary may be high, however, the sheer number remains relatively, due to the much smaller size of the overall prison population. It is estimated at any given time, there are about 1,800 people in solitary confinement in Canadian prisons and upwards of 80,000 in the United States.
Smith’s death also underlined another similarity between the United States and Canada: the ease with which people with mental illness are funneled into prison and then solitary confinement. Fourteen out of 30 suicides in Canadian prisons over the last three years occurred in segregation units—including many by individuals who had a documented history of struggling with mental health issues. In 2010, a 24-year-old with a history of mental illness, Edward Snowshoe, hanged himself after spending 162 days in isolation.
Solitary Watch asked Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, why so many individuals with histories of mental health issues have ended up in Canadian segregation units. “It is for similar reasons [as in the United States], including the reality that mental health services are even more likely to be inadequate and underfunded than other health issues,” she replied via email. This discrepancy persists despite Canada’s universal, single-payer health care system.
Additional Avenues for Change in Canadian Corrections
The fallout from Ashley Smith’s death has also revealed some significant differences between the American and Canadian correctional systems, and particularly the relative dearth of avenues available to American families and advocates seeking change.
It was the inquest into Ashley Smith’s deathand the government’s recalcitrant response—that sparked the recent national debate on the use of solitary confinement in Canadian corrections. No parallel system exists in the United States to bring public scrutiny to prison deaths.
Nor does the U.S. federal prison system have an Office of the Correctional Investigator—or Ombudsman—empowered to probe for problems in prison conditions or administration. In Canada, however, all individuals incarcerated within federal penitentiaries can contact the Ombudsman using a toll-free, unmonitored, and unrestricted number to report abuse or lodge complaints. Staff travel to all federal institutions at least once per year, where they meet privately with prisoners and proactively examine particular areas of focus, including segregation. The office has “golden key” access, meaning that staff members can access any record, any person or any place that is under the authority of the Correctional Service of Canada—with legal penalties for noncompliance.
The current Correctional Investigator, Howard Sapiers, has called for an absolute ban on the use of segregation for individuals who have a significant diagnosis of mental illness, a ban on segregation for individuals who have a history of prolific self harm, and independent adjudication of all continued segregation placements.
In an interview with Solitary Watch, Sapiers called the government’s response to the Ashley Smith inquest “tone deaf.”
“Much of the response really repeated the testimony that was given by correctional employees of Canada during the inquest,” he said on the phone from his office in Ottawa. “You would very much think that the status quo was okay.”
In addition, both lawsuits moving forward in the Canadian courts allege that isolation violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. With a few exceptions, this argument has proven largely futile in U.S. courts.
Solitary Watch asked the BCCLA’s Laura Track why she believes her suit can succeed. “Last year, the Federal Court of Canada found that government cuts to health care benefits for refugees amounted to cruel and unusual treatment,” she said via email. “This was a huge victory for the claimants, and represented an important development in constitutional law, breathing new life into the under-used section 12 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
“We will have to wait to see what happens on appeal in that case, but it seems to me that depriving vulnerable refugees of necessary health care services should certainly meet the test set down by the Supreme Court of Canada in earlier cases as treatment that is so excessive as to outrage our standards of decency,” she added.
“Prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement meets the test, too.”
What does solitary confinement have to do with reproductive justice? Quite a lot, says a new report about reproductive health care in New York’s women’s prisons. The Correctional Association of New York, a criminal justice policy and advocacy organization, released Reproductive Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons. The report is a culmination of the organization’s five-year study of the state’s women’s prisons, including in-person interviews with over 950 incarcerated women and 1,500 mailed-in surveys.
New York State incarcerates nearly 4,000 women each year. On any given day, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Service (DOCCS) imprisons 2,300 women, for which it is responsible for providing health care, including reproductive health care. But that care is “woefully substandard,” charges the report. The Correctional Association found that DOCCS systemically offered substandard medical treatment, inadequate access to gynecological care, poor conditions for pregnant women, and insufficient supplies of feminine hygiene products and toilet paper. In addition, pregnant women are routinely shackled during labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery, in violation of the state’s 2009 law.
Solitary confinement exacerbates these problems. Approximately 1,600 people are placed in solitary confinement in New York’s women’s prisons each year. On any given day, 100 women are held in solitary confinement. Until recently, no exceptions were made for pregnant women. But even women who are not pregnant have found that solitary confinement further obstructs their ability to access reproductive health care. “Solitary is especially dangerous for pregnant women because it impedes access to critical OB care and prevents women from getting the regular exercise and movement that are vital for a healthy pregnancy,” the report states. In addition, many pregnant women already experience stress and depression, feelings intensified by isolation. For pregnant women, the additional stress of being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day lowers their ability to fight infection and increases the risk of preterm labor, miscarriage, and low birth weight in babies.
Among the women surveyed by the Correctional Association, the three most common charges for isolation were, in order, disobeying a direct order, creating a disturbance, and being out of place. “It’s one of the clearest examples of how the prison system is a system of punishment and only uses punishment to address behaviors that need intervention and support,” Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Correctional Association’s Women in Prison Project and the author of the report, told Solitary Watch.
DOCCS has two forms of solitary confinement—the Special Housing Unit (SHU), which is used to punish more serious rules violations, and keeplock, for less serious infractions. People placed in keeplock are usually confined to their own cells; if they live in a dorm setting, they are sent to a separate keeplock unit. SHU cells are in a separate area. In keeplock, individuals are allowed to keep their possessions while those in SHU are denied almost all of their property and receive only the minimal number of state-issued items. People generally spend no more than 60 days in keeplock, whereas people can spend months, years or even decades in the SHU.
Whether in SHU or keeplock, people are confined to their cells 23 hours each day. They cannot participate in programs, receive packages, or use the phone except to make legal or emergency calls. In addition, they are limited to one non-legal visit per week and three five to ten minute showers per week. They often have difficulty accessing doctors. When they are visited by medical staff, they are frequently forced to shout their concerns through a locked metal door, allowing people in neighboring cells and nearby staff to hear.
Until 2014, no written policy regulated pregnancy and solitary confinement. But as part of the settlement for the class-action lawsuit Peoples v Fischer, DOCCS issued a memo establishing a “presumption” against SHU placement for pregnant women unless a watch commander believes she poses “an immediate and substantial risk [to herself or others]…or an immediate and substantial threat to the safety and good order of the facility,” which remain left to the discretion of prison staff and officials. The memo does not restrict pregnant women from being placed in keeplock, instead suggesting it as an alternate placement for pregnant women who receive a SHU sentence.
The Correctional Association identified seven women held in solitary while pregnant between 2009 and 2012. All had problems accessing prenatal care from isolation. In one instance, a woman spent four weeks in keeplock where her complaints of bleeding were ignored. After the Correctional Association intervened, she was given medical attention and diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy, in which the pregnancy occurs outside the womb and, if unaddressed, can be fatal.
“Elle Farah” was pregnant when she arrived at Albion Correctional Facility for a work release violation. The week before, she had visited the emergency room for what she had thought was a miscarriage. “They told me to wait and come back on Friday [two days later] for a sonogram and a D&C,” she told Solitary Watch. But work release rules dictated that she return to prison on Friday for the weekend and so she missed the appointment. When she was released on Sunday, she had a drink. “After that, I got sick. I was throwing up. I was throwing up on my way to parole [the next day],” she said. At the parole office, she failed her breathalyzer test and was sent to Albion. When her vomiting continued, she wondered whether she was miscarrying. When she told the sergeant that she was pregnant, she recalled that “he was really nasty about it. He said, ‘That’s not gonna get you out of SHU.'” The prison sent her to an outside hospital where she was told that she was having a miscarriage, that doctors could do nothing, and that she simply had to wait.
A prison nurse served as her hearing officer. At one point, Elle recalled, he stopped the recorder and told her that he had looked at her sonogram and, although she had been told that she was miscarrying, the baby looked fine. He then turned the recorder on and sentenced her to 90 days in SHU. She received no additional medical care or extra food. She was able to shower three times a week and exercise by herself in a small outdoor cage.
Because Albion has no facilities for pregnant women, Elle was transferred to Bedford Hills two weeks later. She was fully shackled, including waist chains, for the entire ten-hour bus ride. When she arrived at Bedford, she was placed in SHU. “Even though I was in solitary in both places, I was happy to go from one solitary to another because Bedford’s was a little bit better,” she said. But even with the extra snack that Bedford provides pregnant women (“usually a bologna sandwich,” she recalled, although pregnant women are advised to avoid deli meats which can be life-threatening to a fetus), she remembered that she was always hungry. “I had to wait a long time to eat and there wasn’t a lot of healthy food.”
Even women who are not pregnant face reproductive injustices while in isolation. Donna Hylton was in the SHU at Bedford Hills for three months when she sought care for a burning sensation in her urethra. First, she had to tell the officer that she wanted to sign up for sick call. “You have to yell your business down a corridor full of women,” she explained. Hours later, a male officer arrived and asked, “Who signed up for sick call? Why do you want to sign up for sick call?” The response, Hyton remembered, “felt like a gross violation of my privacy.”
Two days later, a nurse, accompanied by two officers, stopped in front of her cell and spoke to Hylton through the closed door. Two weeks after that, Hylton was placed in handcuffs, ankle cuffs and a waist chain before being escorted to the prison’s medical unit. There, a nurse asked if she had been having sex. “The door was open and a sergeant was right outside,” she remembered. “There was no privacy.” Another week passed before she was once again shackled and brought to the gynecologist, who asked the same question about sex. He did not examine her before prescribing Tylenol.
Finally, the woman in the adjoining cell, Judith Clark, helped Hylton figure out that she had a urinary tract infection triggered by antibiotics for a sinus infection. To access medical care, Hylton once again had to yell down the corridor to sign up for sick call and go through the whole process again. But this time, the gynecologist examined her. Although her waist chain and ankle cuffs were removed, she remained cuffed by one hand during the exam. “”You’re cuffed, you’re chained, you’re strapped. You have to take off some of your clothes while being restrained,” she explained. “Being a [rape] survivor, it was very violating. I was re-traumatized.”
Hylton was taken off the antibiotics for her sinus infection and placed on medication for a urinary tract infection. “But it was only because of Judy that I learned what was causing it,” she remembered. “No one had asked me anything about my medications.”
Hylton’s medical ordeal happened in 1987. Nearly 30 years later, the Correctional Association found that women face the same obstacles. Nearly half of the women surveyed attempted to access gynecological care while in isolation. More than one-third reported that the officers refused to place their names on the sick call list unless the woman described her concern. The practice has caused some women to refrain from seeking medical, particularly gynecological, care while in solitary. Given that the average SHU sentence is about three months and that the average keeplock sentence ranges between 14 and 27 days, not seeking health care can have deleterious, and sometimes long-lasting, effects.
In addition, some women have reported that nurses on sick call rounds dismissed their concerns and refused to allow them to see a doctor. Even when nurses are not dismissive, they must assess the woman through the closed cell door. Women also reported waiting for weeks before seeing a doctor. In the meantime, their symptoms often worsened. Like Hylton, women in the SHU are taken to gynecological appointments in shackles. DOCCS policy is to remove shackles for the appointment at the doctor’s request, but seven of the 25 women who had GYN exams while in isolation reported that they remained in restraints while being examined.
The Correctional Association also has a Prison Visiting Project, which visits and monitors conditions in both men’s and women’s prisons in New York State. Scott Paltrowitz, the project’s associate director, points out that many of these concerns, such as access and quality of medical care, are also experienced in men’s isolation units. “Solitary confinement is torture for all people because of the intense suffering and severe physical and psychological debilitation it causes,” he told Solitary Watch. “The particularly devastating gender-specific impacts on women in solitary highlighted in Reproductive Injustice epitomize the egregious nature of this practice and the extreme punitive approach utilized in New York State prisons. New York needs to end this practice for all people.”
Hylton agrees. “No one should be dehumanized in such a fashion.” So does Elle Farah. “Don’t put no pregnant person in SHU,” she recommended, adding, “I hope the whole solitary thing ends. The crime doesn’t justify the punishment.”
“These [stories] are examples of why we need to keep people out of solitary and keep people out of prison altogether,” said Tamar Kraft-Stolar. The report is the launching point for the Correctional Association’s Campaign to End Reproductive Injustice, which seeks to raise reproductive health care standards in prison, end shackling during all stages of pregnancy, and push New York to continue shifting away from incarceration by utilizing more alternatives to incarceration and ending the criminalization of social and economic issues.
• Last year, the Ohio Department of Youth Services decreased its use of segregation by two-thirds, according to a report released by the state’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee. The changes were instituted following an agreement with the US Department of Justice.
• The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana released a report entitled “Locked in the Past: Montana’s Jails in Crisis,” which focuses in part on the widespread use of segregation. According to the authors, “one disturbing trend [in the state’s facilities] is the lack of any limits on the amount of time individuals can be isolated.” (Covered by The Bozeman Daily Chronicle).
• The last incarcerated member of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox, has been again indicted by a grand jury for the 1972 death of a prison guard. Woodfox has been convicted for the same murder twice before, but both convictions have been thrown out on appeal.
• According to report recently released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the South Carolina Department of Corrections has been issuing disciplinary violations to prisoners who access Facebook, even when done so indirectly, for example through a family member. Records accessed through FOIA requests revealed that one individual was sentenced to 37 years in solitary as a result of repeated Facebook usage. (Covered by Slate).
• New Jersey held a hearing on the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and the need for change. A bill recently introduced into the New Jersey State Legislature aims to reduce the amount of time that incarcerated individuals can be held in isolation while requiring corrections officials to develop feasible alternatives.
• The mother of an individual who hung himself in a Rikers Island solitary confinement cell in 2013 has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city. Quannell Offley had threatened to kill himself repeatedly but received no mental health treatment in the days leading up to his death; one guard allegedly dared him to commit suicide.
• The World-Herald Bureau published an in-depth investigation into the placement of individuals with mental illness in solitary confinement in Nebraska prisons. The piece focuses on the experiences of Chris Seaton, who was diagnosed with mental illness as a young child, and now – at age 29 – spends 23 hours per day in isolation.
• According to whistleblower emails acquired by a Fox31 investigative reporter, Colorado DOC officials have been giving state and federal lawmakers misleading information about the DOC’s success in reducing the number of individual with mental illness being placed in administrative segregation. The article specifies that “the whistleblower call[ed] the reduction number ‘overstated.’”
Jacob Barrett is an Oregon state prisoner who was transferred to Florida and has been held for years in “Close Management,” or solitary confinement, most recently at Florida State Prison in Raiford. On February 1, Barrett began a hunger strike not only against the conditions he himself has endured, but also against the rampant abuses in Florida’s prisons. These abuses have gained notoriety in recent months due an increase in reporting, especially by the Miami Herald, on the high number of prison deaths in the state. These include such gruesome cases as a man with mental illness who was locked in a scalding shower until his skin melted off, and another who was gassed to death while locked in a cell.
What follows are excerpts from a letter sent by Barrett to the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which has long published his writings and artwork, and a handwritten press release about the hunger strike. Barrett writes that he believes he has no alternative, and that “I’m not killing me, they are killing me.” A practicing Druid, he cites both the Quran and the ancient Celtic tradition of the Troscad—a ritual fast held in protest of grievances.
After two weeks on hunger strike, Jacob Barrett, who is no longer permitted to write letters, has been transferred to a “crisis unit.” His supporters on the outside are urging people to write to him and to contact prison officials on his behalf, as outlined here: www.facebook.com/JacobBarrettHungerStrike. —Jean Casella
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I don’t believe there are any reasonable timely alternatives. My court cases will be tied up for years, all the while abuses continue and I can’t even make a phone call to my family. We get punished for talking to other prisoners. It is going to force their hand. And sometimes it is the right thing to do.
I am not doing it solely for me, but other prisoners as well. I am also doing it to show solidarity for families of those who have recently been shot and murdered by police. I’m tired of hearing these guard call people “faggot” and beat on people and get away with it.
There is a verse from the Quran that says “The life of this world is but a comfort of illusion.” (3:185). I don’t know. All I know is I find no comfort in the Florida illusion. I know my action is extreme, however, I’m not killing me, they are killing me. It’s their conduction that is provoking it.
They have three choices:(1) correct their wrongs; (2) send me out of Florida—which would negate the need for a troscad; or (3) let me die and face media scrutiny, if the media even cares.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) have released a report arguing that “solitary confinement is dangerous, expensive and makes Texas less safe.” In A Solitary Failure: The Waste, Cost and Harm of Solitary Confinement, through surveys, in-person interviews, and corroborative research conducted over an eight-month period, the ACLU and TCRP found that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC) is trapped in “the outdated and expensive mindset of using solitary confinement as a routine correctional practice,” leading to inhumane, inefficient, and archaic conditions that permanently damage people held in prison and threaten public safety—all at the taxpayers’ expense.
While some states are moving towards limiting the use of solitary confinement, Texas continues to make liberal use of the practice. It houses 4.4 percent of its prisoners in solitary confinement, for an average of three and a half years of isolation. And these figures actually reflect a 34 percent reduction in the state’s solitary population since 2006.
According to the report, TDCJ spends $46 million dollars a year to house individuals in solitary confinement. Additional costs are generated by the particular administrative burdens of segregation—which have been known to cause heightened levels of stress for prison administrators, as well as recidivism that occurs as a result of solitary confinement exacerbating an individual’s anti-social behaviors and mental illnesses. The report predicts that Texas stands to save at least $31 million dollars a year, if the state’s use of solitary confinement drops to Mississippi’s rate of 1.4 percent.
While the financial burden of solitary confinement is considerable, the cost of the measure, in real terms, transcends its monetary impact. For instance, people in solitary confinement are five times more likely to commit suicide than those in the general prison population. In 1999, a federal judge described Texas’s solitary-confinement cells as “virtual incubators of psychoses—seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates,” with people entering solitary confinement in good health only to leave permanently damaged. Alex, an inmate confined to segregation, describes his experience:
“Everyday from dusk to dawn there’s noise, banging, clanking, yelling, screaming. Everyday someone is getting hurt or hurting themselves. Everyday there’s fire and floods and complete chaos & hate. Everyday there’s loneliness. I woke up last night to someone screaming ‘Let Me Out of Here’ (again) over and over with so much anguish there was no doubt he was screaming from his very soul. But he was just screaming what we are all thinking. Everyday is a challenge here. A challenge against insanity.”
Alex is one of 147 people in isolation who responded to a survey sent out by the ACLU and TCRP on the experience of solitary confinement. According to the report, ninety-five percent of survey respondents said they had developed some sort of psychiatric symptom as a result of segregation. Thirty percent reported having oral or physical outbursts. Fifty percent reported suffering from anxiety or panic attacks. Fifteen percent reported hallucinations.
Anna, a survey respondent, wrote, “Felt isolated, withdrew from people socially; clean, organize, obsessively, hand wash, felt despair, felt disoriented/confused, panic, couldn’t sleep until exhausted. Bad dreams, see something on walls moving but nothing there.” These responses substantiate well-established understandings of the psychological impact of solitary confinement on the average person..
For those who enter solitary confinement with previous mental illness, the “challenge against insanity” is far steeper. According to the report, TDCJ places at least 2,012 people with mental illnesses in solitary. These individuals are met with inadequate mental health services and monitoring, as the department provides only cursory checks that are unlikely to identify serious issues. Of those survey respondents who met with a mental health worker, 65 percent said their meetings were less than two minutes long. The report indicates that TDCJ does not provide adequate reviews of the mental-health needs of people in solitary confinement, even those with a history of serious mental illness and, as a result, remains unable to identify and address people’s mental-health needs.
In the report, Corrections Officer Steve Martin remarks that TDCJ’s failure to track people with serious mental illness is “an alarming flaw from a correctional management standpoint—on its face it calls into question TDCJ’s management.” To illustrate the current state of affairs, the report narrates that TDCJ diagnosed a man named Henry with bipolar I disorder, with psychotic features. Despite a prior suicide attempt in general population, Henry was placed in solitary confinement in 2005, where he remains to this day. Henry attempted suicide a second time while in solitary. Although TDCJ documented Henry’s symptoms, (mental illness, visual and auditory hallucinations, and suicide attempts) in his medical chart, it failed to take him out of solitary confinement.
When mental-health reviews are conducted, they are not confidential. Seventy-five percent of respondents said their mental-health review was merely conducted by speaking through their cell door. Many reported that officers overhear all of their confidential medical conversations and repeat confidential medical information to other officers or prisoners. The relationship between mental health and solitary confinement is at the core of the intangible and irrecoverable costs of the controversial punitive practice. The ACLU and TCRP report that in 2013, almost eighty percent of the 499 instances of prisoners exposing officers to bodily fluids occurred in Texas’s solitary-confinement units; none occurred in general-population units.
In addition, according to the report, after years in solitary confinement, people are unprepared to resume the roles society expects of them: as parents, spouses, employees, and neighbors. In addition to physical isolation, spiritual and emotional isolation are imposed upon individuals in solitary who remain cut off from their families and communities of worship. Many spend years without so much as a human touch. The report indicates that by isolating an individual from meaningful human contact, solitary confinement chips away at his or her support-network, increasing the possibility for recidivism.
People released directly from solitary confinement are rearrested at a 25 percent higher rate than prisoners released from the overall prison system. TDCJ has a few programs aimed at helping those released directly from solitary confinement. However, these programs serve only a small number of the total population in solitary and do not always adequately respond to the particular challenge that those in solitary confinement confront upon reentry to society after years of solitude. With their personal support network compromised, and with little assistance from prison administration, those who leave prison from segregation units face the usual challenges of re-entry, in addition to a varying bundle of extreme and unusual psychological challenges that can result from extreme forms of isolation. This leaves those in solitary at a considerable disadvantage upon release–a disadvantage that can cause many to return to prison, and perhaps even to further solitary confinement.
From this extended study, ACLU and TCRP make four recommendations:
- First, they call for a change in the institutional attitude towards solitary confinement by training correctional officers to work effectively with people with mental illness, enacting step-down programs that allow individuals to move to less restrictive housing based on good behavior, and instituting an independent oversight entity to monitor TDCJ’s use of solitary confinement.
- Second, the recommend that people with serious mental illness should be removed from solitary confinement by providing mental-health screening to everyone within twenty-four hours of placement in solitary confinement, enacting policies requiring mental-health professionals to participate in all initial decisions classifying prisoners to solitary confinement, as well as all follow-up placement reviews, establishing segregated housing with adequate mental-health treatment for the small number of mentally ill people who legitimately need to be housed in a high security setting.
- Third, they call for a system-wide review of solitary-confinement placement methodologies through a review of all individuals in solitary confinement with the goal of removing as many individuals as possible, ceasing automatic placement in solitary confinement, ending flat release of people from solitary confinement into Texas communities, and an end to housing individuals in solitary confinement for over one year, except in rare circumstances.
- Finally, the groups recommend improvements in conditions in solitary through ensuring appropriate programming for individuals held in solitary confinement, providing adequate stimulation to lower the effects of sensory deprivation, supporting family relationships, and providing adequate mental-health and medical services to those in solitary confinement.
• The American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project released a report on the use of the solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. According to the report, Texas holds about 6,000 people in solitary confinement, for an average duration of four years.
• The Washington Post released an editorial citing the report and condemning the use of solitary confinement in the state.
• New York’s Rikers Island will open up a unit for transgender women this week. Transgender women on Rikers – like in many prisons and jails across the country – are often placed in voluntary or involuntary protective custody (isolation) due to the violence or perceived threat they face in general population.
• According to the Sauk Valley News, the first prisoners could start arriving at AUSP Thomson as early as mid-March. “About 200 minimum-security inmates” will be selected to assist in Thomson’s activation, set to become the BOP’s second supermax facility.
• WNYC aired an episode focusing on New York’s mental health crisis and the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. The story focuses on Sedlis Dowdly, “a diagnosed schizophrenic” who spent nine years in solitary confinement, but is due to be released in five.
• Delaware will consider legislation that would limit the amount of time an individual can be placed in solitary confinement from three months to four weeks. According to Delaware State News, the bill “would also prohibit solitary placement that aims to address disciplinary concerns to no more than 15 consecutive days and none for juveniles or those with mental illnesses.”
• Fusion released an in-depth investigation into the privatized immigration detention system. According to the article, “these prisons [detention facilities] hold nearly twice the number of inmates in solitary confinement as other federal facilities… Inmates are allegedly placed in solitary confinement for complaining about food, medical care or filing grievances.”
• Albert Woodfox, the last imprisoned member of the Angola 3, is one step closer to release. The US Appeals Court denied a request from Louisiana’s Attorney General for a full review of a decision made by a three-judge panel, which in November overturned Woodfox’s conviction for a 1972 murder. Woodfox has been held in isolation for more than 40 years.
• A federal judge in California has ordered the state to cease segregating prisoners with disabilities by placing them in solitary confinement. Judge Claudia Wilken said that the practice violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in addition to several court orders.
Lexy is a 36-year-old transgender woman who was recently released from New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) custody after about two and a half years inside. She spent three months in solitary confinement in “the Box” — first at Watertown, then at Midstate — after a can lid was found under her bed. She says that the “weapon” was placed there by corrections officers, in retaliation for filing a grievance alleging sexual misconduct. Below, she writes about her experiences in isolation, and how solitary confinement uniquely affects trans people locked up in New York state. — Aviva Stahl
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In writing this, I understand that there is a real sense of disconnection within NYS Dept of Corrections, almost as if people lose themselves to the process. This experience for me was unbearable. I believe that it’s not only the mentality of the offenders but the officers as well who really make it what it is in the present.
This journey began for me in August of 2012 as an openly transgendered individual in NYS Corrections. I was convicted of Grand Larceny, a non-violent offense for issuing a bad check. I first arrived to Watertown Correctional Facility. Things were OK until January of 2013 where I was forced to remove my shirt and sports bra in front of a third of the population.This led to an individual publicly harassing me, both physically and sexually. It was almost as if Corrections [Officers] just turned a blind eye to the abuse.
After filing a grievance and standing up to known intolerance of my kind on my person, I was rewarded with Solitary Confinement, Box time. Coming from a background of no violence, my faith was not only shattered, but more importantly broken. I lost myself, I lost myself to the process. I was charged, but not found guilty of a weapons charge. I was lost, I felt as if I’d lost my most important thing, my spirit. I was removed from all programming, I was off the grid, no one knew where I was, no contact with family.
I emotionally broke down. I was transferred to a mental health observation unit. What amazes me about this, is just how much you feel as if you don’t matter to the real world. After suffering the abuse I did physically at Watertown being alone was a gift. I was psychologically torn between the sexual abuse, and being boxed, its so difficult to find yourself in any of the process.
Through the experience of being boxed, one loses all sense of reality, time…even the date…you long for any contact, any way of communication, and being a Transsexual it just further compounds the intensity of the feeling, the moment. It’s a miracle, should you escape the torture of the box. It’s scheduled, a way of life, and the Correctional Officers can and will get away with murder. Virtually anything is open, who is going to believe a con anyway.
I still had my voice, I had what little spirit I had and I clung to it. I wrote. I had an amazing Attorney, she was and is relentless, Melissa Loomis of Prisoner Legal Services in Ithaca, New York. She advocated, she would not give up on finding me lost to the system, GOD how could I ever forget her…When she knew I was in trouble, she came, she found me…Subsequently it was her letter that got me released from Corrections. She gave me the strength I needed so desperately. I was eventually released from the Box at Midstate Correctional Facility.
It was within Midstate that I realized how disengaging this whole process was, nothing was supportive in any way. It was there that I was visited by a NYS [Parole Board] Commissioner Sally Thompson. It was then that she took my hand and said I know about everything that happened to you. This was unheard of in Corrections, I was so far away in the sense that this was so unexpected.
The one factor I came to understand about those similarly situated to me, was that they were all stuck on fantasy island, in the sense that they accepted the bid as it was, as a right of passage, as if this life was OK, prison life, was in fact a way of life. I was terrified…terrified of losing myself to that standard of living, receiving multiple tickets or tier three tickets as they are known, losing good time, losing merit time, not completing required programming to go home. Why…because you’ve lost yourself to fantasy island, where in your mind nothing matters, this is all great…This is OK…I could never lose myself to that process…I knew then that there was nothing corrective about being locked up, the corrective change had to start within.
I found the greatest part of my life through this, I’ve always believed that at times you have to crawl through the darkest places in this World to find something so undeniably breathtaking. I found just that, through the greatest of adversity, I found him, I found Jeremy. I know now that without this nightmare, finding him, it just would have never happened. Our love for one another is bionically strong, so much in the sense that his face haunts me…I owe so much to this World, I know what it’s like, GOD I want to scream to this World, I know what it’s like. My Tranz Brothers and Sisters are there, boxed. I know their voice, I know all of their voices, it’s killing me…I wont stop…I WILL NOT LET THEIR VOICE GO UNHEARD.
• The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has filed as lawsuit against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC), after it failed to provide documents or status updates in relation to two records requests. One of the requests regarded a work group created by the DOC’s secretary to review its use of solitary confinement.
• A settlement reached between the Justice Department and the Muscogee County Jail will substantially reform the treatment of those with mental illness. According to a local outlet, the agreement “restricts the use of solitary confinement for prisoners with serious mental illness and limits the use of solitary confinement after 14 days.”
• The Bureau of Prisons finalized the rules that govern its Communication Management Units, the units which have been nicknamed “Guantanamo North” by civil liberties advocates and come under scrutiny for holding a majority-Muslim population in conditions of social isolation. According to The Marshall Project, “prisoner advocates claim the new rules impose even stricter limits on contact without providing a legitimate way for inmates to appeal being placed under such restrictions.”
• The San Francisco Bay Chronicle published an inside account of solitary confinement entitled, “What would compel a man to try to cut his own face off?”
• The American Institute of Architects has rejected a proposed amendment to its ethics code, which would have prohibited AIA members from designing spaces “intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.” Architecture News Daily reported that the main controversy around the amendment was not around content but enforceability.
• The Guardian published an excerpt of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, in which “the campaigning American lawyer [Stevenson] tells how he fought for Ian Manuel, a 13-year-old black youth locked up in solitary confinement for 18 years.”
It has been over three years since the first statewide hunger strike in protest of the California prison systems’ use of solitary confinement. The hunger strike, the first of many to follow, was launched by individuals housed in the state’s Security Housing Units (SHUs). The hunger strikes prompted state Legislative hearings, international scrutiny, and some reforms.
The SHU, first established in 1989 at Pelican Bay State Prison, was designed to house the “worst-of-the-worst” in close, secure, isolated confinement. Keeping individuals in small, windowless cells for 22 1/2 to 24 hours a day eventually proved to be a convenient solution to deal with individuals exhibiting behavioral or mental health problems and real or suspected gang affiliation as well.
The SHU, once limited to Pelican Bay, has been expanded to a total of four male facilities and one female facility. Despite this expansion, California doesn’t have enough room in the SHUs for all the individuals prison officials would like to place in them, necessitating their placement in Administrative Segregation Units (ASUs), which are dispersed throughout each prison.
By 2011, there were thousands of individuals in the SHU, including over 1,100 in the Pelican Bay SHU alone. Of them, approximately half had been in the SHU for over a decade and 78 had been in the SHU for at least 20 years.
In June 2011, individuals in the Pelican Bay SHU coordinated a hunger strike in protest of long-term isolation. The hunger strike lasted three weeks, notably bringing together people of all racial groups. There would be an additional hunger strike that year, followed by a third, 60-day-long hunger strike in July 2013.
Partly in response to the hunger strikes, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) proposed and implemented an array of reforms purportedly aimed at tightening the standards for SHU placement and potentially reducing the number of individuals held in highly restrictive custody.
Beginning in October 2012, the CDCR has changed the criteria used to place individuals in the SHU, created a “Step Down Program” for individuals to transition out of the SHU, and began a process of case-by-case reviews of all individuals held in the SHU and ASU to determined the appropriateness of their placement.
The reviews are ongoing, but the data collected so far is quite revealing.
According to data obtained from CDCR, 725 SHU case reviews have been conducted, with about 69% those cases leading to release to the final step in the Step Down Program and/or a General Population setting. A further 63% of ASU case reviews have led to a return to the general population.
In other words, in most cases, it appears that under slightly stricter standards, CDCR could not justify keeping individuals in highly restrictive, isolating conditions.
With these reviews being conducted for over two years now, and the overall decline of the prison population, one would expect that the number of people in restrictive housing would be on the decline.
Officially, CDCR does not believe it holds individuals in solitary confinement. Thus, a true count of the total number of individuals in such conditions is difficult to determine. The purpose of this research is to use CDCR data to provide a means of determining how many individuals might be in solitary confinement.
The CDCR releases pertinent data through COMPSTAT (COMPuter STATistics or COMParative STATistics). CDCR keeps track of the following data: the number of individuals in single-celled housing, the number of individuals in the SHU and ASU, and the number of individuals in the SHU and ASU in single-celled housing. This data is the closest one can get to determining the number of individuals in solitary confinement.
Total Single Cell Population
Presented first is a comparison of the reported single-cell population per institution in October 2012 and October 2014.
In October 2012, there was a prison population of 124,718. At that time, were 6,281 individuals who were single-celled, or 5.03% of the prison population. In October 2014, there was a prison population of 120,705. There were 5,546 individuals who were single-celled, or 4.59% of the prison population.
In 2012, 4,572 of those single-celled were designated with an S-Suffix, or 72% of the single-celled population. In 2014, 4,975 of those single-celled were designated with an S-Suffix, or 89% of the single-celled population. Individuals designated an S-Suffix are generally placed on single-celled status for longer periods of time.
The SHU is used to house people deemed security threats over the long-term. Given the outcomes of the case-by-case reviews, a reduction in the SHU population has occurred since 2012.
In October 2012, the total SHU population stood at 3,923. In October 2014, the total SHU population was 3,732.
As can be seen in the above chart, there were reductions in the SHU population in all four male institutions, with the exception of the Pelican Bay SHU. In October 2012, there were 1,121 held in the Pelican Bay SHU; two years later the figure was 1,171.
While there has been an increase in the number of individuals in the Pelican Bay SHU, there has also been a decline in the number of individuals in the Pelican Bay SHU on single-cell status. In 2012, 83% of those in the SHU were on single-cell status. In 2014, about 75% of those in the Pelican Bay SHU were on single-cell status.
At the California Institution for Women, there have been slight reductions in use of the SHU. In October 2012, there were 88 women in the SHU, with none on single-cell status. In October 2014, there were 78 women in the SHU, with four on single-cell status.
Among the SHU population system-wide, there have been reductions in the number and percentage of individuals on single-cell status. In 2012, there were 1,849 individuals in the SHU on single-cell status, approximately 47.1% of the SHU population. In 2014, there were 1,721 individuals in the SHU on single-cell status, or about 46.1% of the SHU population.
It is important to note that those removed from single-cell status might well still be locked down 22 to 24 hours a day–but in cells with one or more other people.
Aside from the SHU, the ASU also serves to isolate individuals in the California prison system, though generally for shorter periods of time than the SHU. There is no typical term in the ASU, which can range from hours to years. Unlike the SHU, the ASU is not designed to be long-term housing.
Overall, the total number of individuals in the ASU declined significantly between 2012 and 2014.
In October 2012, there were 7,007 individuals (5.61% of the prison population) in ASUs:
- Of them, there were 1,547 on single-cell status (22%)
- Salinas Valley State Prison had the largest ASU population (395) and the largest population of ASU prisoners on single-cell status (202)
- Valley State Prison reported only having two people in the ASU
- Some prisons reported having no single-celled ASU prisoners: Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, California Correctional Center, San Quentin State Prison, and Valley State Prison for Women
In October 2014, there were 5,777 individuals (4.78% of prison population) in ASUs:
- Of them, there were 1,289 on single-cell status (22.3%)
- Kern Valley State Prison had the largest ASU population (364)
- Salinas Valley State Prison had the largest single-cell ASU population (165)
- Central California Women’s Facility, California Correctional Center and Correctional Training Facility reported only having two people in the ASU on Single-Cell Status
- Some prisons reported having no single-celled ASU prisoners: Avenal State Prison, Chuckwalla Valley State Prison, Sierra Conservation Center, and California Institution for Women
The fluctuations in single-cell status across institutions are as of yet unexplained.
Unlike what is available for the SHU, CDCR makes available through COMPSTAT the average terms in the ASU per institution. ASUs are not designed for long-term housing and do not typically come with any significant form of programming. While in theory individuals shouldn’t spend very much time the ASU, COMPSTAT data consistently shows long-terms in the ASU.
As seen in the above chart, lengths of stay in the ASU vary across prisons and time.
In October 2012, the average term in the ASU was 107.5 days. Two years later, the average ASU term was 89.6 days, a significant decline.
In 2012, among male facilities, Sierra Conservation Center had the lowest average length of stay in the ASU, with an average of 42 days. Calipatria State Prison had the longest, with an average ASU stay of 266 days. In 2014, Chuckawalla Valley had the briefest length of stay of stay in the ASU, with terms of 36 days. Ironwood State Prison had the longest average stay in the ASU, at 132 days.
It appears that the total use of single-cell housing is on the decline. Further, total use of SHU and ASUs in both raw numbers and as a percentage of the prison population have declined. In the SHU, there has been a slight decline in the use of single-cell housing, though a slight increase in the SHU population at Pelican Bay State Prison. In the ASU, the percentage of individuals in the ASU on single-cell status has slightly increased, though there have been significant declines in terms of stay in the ASU.
There are a few potential explanations for the decline in single-cell placement and the use of segregation units. First, the case-by-case SHU and ASU reviews that have been occurring have undoubtedly contributed to the decline of segregation populations. As a result of those reviews, hundreds of individuals have been transferred out of the SHU and ASU and placed in general population. Second, there ought to have been reductions in the total single-cell population in part due to court-ordered reforms pertaining to the segregating of individuals receiving mental health treatment. Thirdly, it is possible that some individuals in segregation units have benefited in recent years from prison population reductions.
Thus far, for advocates of reducing the use of solitary confinement, there is cause for cautious optimism within the data. At the same time, there is much more that can be done.