Reducing Solitary Confinement, One Cell At A Time

April 18, 2017
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by Priyanka Boghani Digital Reporter

“Down here, makes you feel like you’re being buried alive,” said Todd Fickett, from inside his solitary confinement cell in the Maine State Prison.

Fickett was serving 20 years for arson, when an assault on an officer earned him a six-month stint in solitary, locked in a cell for 23 hours a day with little to no human contact.

“My mental state will probably go downhill,” Fickett predicted in a scene from the new FRONTLINE documentary, Last Days of Solitary. “I go pretty crazy,” he said.

In solitary, Fickett gained a reputation as a “serious cutter.” Like many inmates, he would routinely self-mutilate. Other inmates would flood their cells in protest. Some would throw their feces.

Years ago, Fickett’s self-harming would have likely resulted in more time in solitary. But starting in 2013, a new warden was hired to carry out reform at the Maine State Prison. Instead of receiving more time in isolation, Fickett was transferred to a mental health unit where he began working with a clinician. After a month with no self-harming, he was able to talk by phone with his daughter. Despite being in and out of solitary for 18 months, he kept taking rehabilitation classes.

“I do have a different attitude from two years ago,” Fickett said. “The programming I’ve done since I’ve been to prison taught me how to change my frame of mind.”

When it came time for Fickett to leave solitary, he was first moved to a unit where he took classes on behavior change and anger management, before he progressed to the prison’s general population.

Maine is among more than 30 states that have moved in recent years to reduce their use of solitary as prison hunger strikes, lawsuits and activism have brought new scrutiny to the mental health effects of isolation, and the risks that freed prisoners might pose following long-term exposure to solitary.

Such concerns have led to a “major shift over the last half a dozen years,” according to Judith Resnik, professor at the Yale Law School and an expert on solitary confinement. “People running prison systems mostly looked at solitary as the answer to a problem, and now I think increasingly people look at solitary as a problem to be solved.”

The movement has picked up support among corrections officials and lawmakers from across the country as they work toward restricting who goes into solitary confinement, how long they spend there, and the transition from solitary back into the general prison population or back into society.

Who Goes In? 

One way prisons have sought to reduce the size of the nation’s solitary population — estimated at 80,000 prisoners — is to limit who goes in. The problem, however, is that in many prisons across the country, there is no clear criteria for putting someone in isolation. Without any guidelines, anyone could end up in solitary for any minor offense, like possessing banned reading materials or drugs, or not immediately obeying orders.

Leann Bertsch was appointed director of North Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in 2005. As the state worked to reduce its solitary population, Bertsch said officials developed a list of major infractions that could land someone in isolation — serious, violent infractions such as assault and battery on staff or an inmate, sexual assault, arson, trafficking, rioting, attempting to escape, taking hostages or homicide.

Once the department had its list of major infractions, Bertsch said, “We went back to the [solitary] unit, and all the ones that didn’t meet those criteria, we opened the doors and released them.”

North Dakota had 87 prisoners in solitary when it implemented these changes, according to Bertsch. About 50 did not meet the new criteria and were released from isolation. Today, she said, the state has 15 people in solitary.

Other states have taken the approach of excluding certain vulnerable populations from solitary. Many prisons no longer allow juveniles, while others don’t allow pregnant women. In New York and Colorado, prisoners with serious mental health illnesses are no longer allowed in long-term isolation, except under “exigent circumstances.”

How Long is too Long? 

When the United Nations released a set of guidelines for the treatment of prisoners in 2015, it prohibited the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days. In America, however, it’s quite common for prisoners to spend several months — and sometimes years — at a time in isolation.

A 2016 study by Resnik at Yale and the Association of State Correctional Administrators found that 29 percent of solitary inmates spend one to three months in isolation. Another 29 percent spent between three months to a year, and 13 percent spent at least a year in solitary. Nearly 11 percent were there for three years or more.

Colorado no longer allows inmates to spend more than a year at a time in solitary, according to Rick Raemisch, executive director of the state’s Department of Corrections. Previously, there was no cap, and according to Raemisch, some prisoners were spending 20 years in solitary at a time.

“For me, it was one of those ‘what the hell are we doing?’ moments,” said Raemisch, who took over the department in 2013 after his predecessor — also a reformer — was killed by an inmate who’d been released from solitary straight into society. “When did it become OK for someone to be locked in a cell by themselves that’s 13 by 7 [feet] for 23 hours a day for years?”

Colorado, Raemisch said, hasn’t released a prisoner from solitary straight to the streets since 2014. Instead, the state has repurposed one of its super-max facilities to use for a “step-down” program where inmates are allowed outside their cells for a minimum of four hours a day and can participate in social and recreational activities. Another unit allows them outside for six hours a day, but inmates are required to participate in programs that improve problem-solving skills and try to change the criminal thought process.

Colorado has also been developing a program where someone who would have gone into solitary now spends 10 hours a week in therapeutic treatment and 10 hours on other activities outside their cell.

Six years ago, the state had 1,500 people in solitary confinement — 7 percent of its prison population. Today, Raemisch said, that number is roughly between 130 and 170 people at any given time.

Changing the Culture

Some prisons have also focused on improving conditions in solitary itself, retraining staff who work there, and sometimes offering prisoners access to behavioral, educational or substance abuse programs as alternatives to solitary.

After a lawsuit, New York came to an agreement with the New York Civil Liberties Union in 2015 that in addition to reducing who’s placed in solitary and how long they stay, would allow solitary inmates to call family or friends for the first time ever. Prisoners now have access to books and personal property, small changes that can mitigate “some of the harshest edges of the conditions of confinement,” according to Taylor Pendergrass of the NYCLU, who was lead counsel on the case.

Previously, prison officials were unlikely to give inmates anything at all, Pendergrass said. “We were successful in persuading them that the people who are in solitary are the people most in need of therapy, the most in need of programming,” he said.

Will Changes Last? 

The question ahead is whether new reforms can withstand inevitable changes in prison leadership, or in the political climate, or incidents in prisons.

Most solitary reforms have so far come at the state or local level. Last year, former President Barack Obama took steps to limit the use of solitary in federal prisons, adopting Justice Department recommendations that would eliminate solitary for juveniles and for low-level offenses, and limit sentences for major offenses to a maximum of 90 days. But the reforms would only apply to around 10,000 inmates in solitary in the federal system — just a fraction of the overall solitary population. There are few signs such efforts will continue at the federal level under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In the absence of any new federal guidelines or legislation, Raemisch, along with Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, has been writing standards for the American Correctional Association, a prison oversight body, on the use of solitary confinement.

The ACA standards would allow prisoners to have visitors, access to legal and reading materials, and educational, social or behavioral programs if they spend more than 30 days in solitary, among other things. But they’re not binding unless a prison is seeking ACA accreditation.

With any efforts to change solitary, Raemisch and Bertsch said getting buy-in from staff is crucial, especially because it can be dangerous, difficult work. Even though the current wave of reforms may seem sweeping, there is sometimes still resistance from those who work most closely with inmates.

“It’s fearful for people [who work in solitary units] because it’s a big change from the way they’ve always done things,” Bertsch said. “The difficult thing is that people sometimes who’re used to working in a certain system, they value a punitive system.” At the first sign of trouble, “they’ll want to blame it on the fact that you’re not harsh enough, that you’re not holding people accountable, that the consequences are not strict enough.”

For example, when the New York agreement was worked out, there was resistance from the New York Correctional Officers Police Benevolent Association. It issued a statement saying, “It is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis.”

However, both Raemisch and Bertsch have reported better conditions not just for inmates in solitary, but also for staff. Raemisch said assaults on staff were down significantly. Bertsch said the change in conditions has led to improved interactions between prisoners and staff.

“It took at lot of education, and talking for administrators to come to the conclusion that isolating people or putting people in solitary confinement was harmful,” Bertsch said. While a few years ago there was active debate about solitary’s harmfulness, she said, “I don’t think that debate’s going on anymore. People recognize that solitary confinement does harm, and it does harm even without long periods of isolation.”

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