Shifting Away from Solitary
More states have passed solitary confinement reforms this year than in the past 16 years.
A number of events pushed solitary confinement onto the agenda, said Jean Casella of the advocacy group Solitary Watch, including a seminal New Yorker article describing solitary as a form of torture, the ACLU taking up the issue in 2011 and a 2013 anti-solitary hunger strike in the Pelican Bay State Prison in California.
Below, a closer look at every solitary reform measure implemented in the United States. The list does not include pending legislation, such as the three solitary reform bills that were introduced in Congress in the span of five months this year, and New Jersey’s much-discussed solitary reform legislation, which was introduced this month.
Solitary Confinement Reforms by State, 1998-20142014 - The biggest year for reform includes the response to a highly publicized hunger strike, two corrections commissioners sleeping in solitary, and a New York Times exposé.
Oct. 14: The ACLU files a settlement agreement with the Arizona Department of Corrections, resolving a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 33,000 prisoners. Among other reforms, the settlement provides mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement with more access to mental health treatment and time outside their cells.
After a nationally publicized hunger strike by prisoners in Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit, the Department of Corrections makes permanent a 2012 pilot program for releasing prisoners previously held in solitary confinement into general population. Over four hundred prisoners have qualified for release, of which over 150 have been moved so far. In addition, new regulations are introduced regarding who may be placed in isolation.
Under the leadership of Tom Clements (who was murdered in March 2013 by a man who'd been released directly from solitary confinement) and then Rick Raemisch (who this January famously spent a night in solitary confinement himself), the Department of Corrections has reduced the number of prisoners in solitary confinement by two-thirds, from 1,500 in 2011. Raemisch has testified that he wants to see that number reduced by another 100 prisoners by next summer. Colorado now has a limited number of permissible reasons for placing inmates in solitary confinement, though some advocates believe the state has reduced its numbers simply by no longer calling solitary confinement "solitary confinement." On June 6, Gov. John Hickenlooper codifies many of Colorado's already-implemented reforms, signing legislation banning the solitary confinement of the seriously mentally ill.
February: Mike Dempsey, head of the Indiana Department of Corrections Division of Youth Services, reports to a group of corrections professionals that Indiana has reduced the number of juveniles in solitary confinement from 48 beds to five to 10, with a maximum stay of 24 hours.
Since 2011, the Department of Corrections has cut the number of "dedicated solitary" beds from 1,400 to 1,100. In addition, MDOC is expanding its “Incentives in Segregation” program — which expands social programming for prisoners in solitary confinement as a way of encouraging positive behavior — from one facility to five.
Dec.15: After hearing testimony from experts from around the country, a bipartisan legislative commission makes 16 recommendations to the state's Corrections Department, including the firing of three prison officials and "significant reduction in the use of segregated confinement, beginning with removing the mentally ill and the cognitively impaired."
The New Mexico Corrections Department, responding to the recommendations of a Vera Institute-led "working group" convened in 2011 by the state legislature, commits on Feb. 12 to reducing its reliance on solitary confinement. The department plans to emphasize alternative disciplinary measures, build new general population units, and develop social programming for the prisoners who remain in solitary. On May 2, after spending two days in solitary confinement himself, state Secretary of Corrections Gregg Marcantel challenges judges who hear disciplinary cases to consider alternatives before isolation; several inmates are released from solitary confinement into the general population. The corrections department has pledged to reduce the percentage of state prisoners in solitary confinement from 9.6 percent to 5 percent by next year.
As a result of a settlement agreement with the NYCLU in Peoples v. Fischer, on Feb. 19, New York's becomes the largest prison system to ban the solitary confinement of juveniles for disciplinary reasons. (Pregnant women and prisoners with developmental disabilities are also largely protected from the punishment.) The agreement imposes unprecedented sentencing guidelines, specifying the maximum terms of solitary confinement that may be handed down for various disciplinary infractions. In a Sept. 28 memo to Mayor Bill De Blasio, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte (who previously spearheaded solitary confinement reform in Maine) says solitary confinement of 16- and 17-year-olds at Riker's Island will be eliminated by the end of the year. New York City has been under pressure to do so from a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, as well as the investigative reporting of The New York Times. On Oct. 17, the Department of Corrections resolves Cookhorne v. Fischer, updating its policies to prohibit juveniles from being held in solitary confinement. Correctional officers will be trained in dealing with juveniles, and more social workers will be hired.
May 21: The U.S. Department of Justice reaches an agreement with the state, under which the Department of Youth Services must reduce the frequency and duration of (and ultimately eliminate) solitary confinement for juveniles. Many commentators have suggested that the deal is a warning sign from the Justice Department, indicating to states who haven't acted that solitary confinement reform for juveniles is a federal priority.
March-April: Corrections Secretary Ed Wall releases a memo to DOC employees articulating his vision for reforming the use of solitary confinement. New rules are proposed and quickly approved by the Legislature, and are set to go into effect in January.
2013 - Several states limit the amount of time inmates spend in isolation.
Sept. 4: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issues a directive limiting the solitary confinement of detainees to extreme circumstances.
Jan. 4: Following years of legislative debate surrounding solitary housing practices at the notorious supermax facility, Tamms Correctional Center, Gov. Pat Quinn closes the facility.
June 1: After a legislative review of the issue, Gov. Brian Sandoval approves a bill restricting solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, including a ban on isolation over 72 hours. The law also mandates the keeping of comprehensive monthly records of when and where solitary confinement is used. Meanwhile, Ely State Prison continues to have some of the worst solitary confinement practices in the country.
September-December: Under pressure from the Jails Action Coalition, the New York City Board of Corrections initiates rule-making on the issue of solitary confinement, and begins reassigning mentally ill prisoners to facilities with therapeutic resources.
Oklahoma establishes an apparent statutory ban on the solitary confinement of juveniles, though the code remains vague about emergency conditions in which such isolation may be allowed.
Virginia reduced the number of prisoners in segregation by 62 percent since 2011, and is implementing a “step-down” program allowing inmates to earn their way out of solitary confinement.
2012 - The movement takes hold. Six states implement reforms.
Oct. 15: Alaska's delinquency rules are changed to include a regulation banning the solitary confinement of juveniles for punitive reasons. However, the state's definition of "secure confinement" is vague, and it's not clear how (or whether) the regulation is being implemented.
Jan. 1: Partly as a result of a 2011 legislative review, the Department of Corrections begins reclassifying hundreds of prisoners from solitary confinement into the general population. The bar is raised for putting prisoners into isolation, and new procedures for re-entry and mental health care are developed. On March 19, after a unanimous vote in the General Assembly, the state closes State Penitentiary II, a facility of entirely single-inmate solitary confinement cells. Excessive costs and reduced demand for "administrative segregation" are the reasons cited.
April 25: Connecticut establishes a statutory ban on the solitary confinement of juveniles. However, the new statute's language doesn't define "solitary confinement," and a subsequent 2014 statute seems to allow the "seclusion" of post-adjudicated juveniles if it's officially authorized. Reports of juveniles being placed in isolation have continued.
April 12: As a result of a settlement with the Disability Law Center, the Department of Corrections begins rewriting its policies to exclude severely mentally ill prisoners from solitary confinement. Additionally, two new maximum-security mental health treatment facilities are designed.
Feb. 27: As a result of a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, juveniles are prohibited from being housed in solitary confinement.
April 26: As a result of a lawsuit in which two inmates claimed their treatment violated a 1998 law, Division of Juvenile Services Director Dale Humphreys announces he has ordered an end to the practice of punishing juveniles with solitary confinement.
2010 - Maine and Mississippi: Two very different models for change.
Under the leadership of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, Maine’s Department of Corrections revamps its Special Management Unit, cutting the population of prisoners in solitary confinement in half. Now, placing a prisoner in the SMU for longer than 72 hours requires the personal approval of the commissioner of Corrections. Placement in “the hole” has been replaced with informal punishments, and social programming has been expanded.
June 4: After the ACLU files a lawsuit, Department of Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps shuts down Parchman Farm’s notorious Unit 32, a solitary confinement unit. A “Step-Down” system is introduced, returning inmates to Parchman’s general population. Under Epps, the number of prisoners in solitary confinement drops from 1,300 to 300. (However, some of the prisoners are moved from solitary confinement at Parchman into private facilities operated by companies from which Epps would later be indicted for taking bribes.)
2008 - New York follows up by enacting legislation.
2007 NEW YORK
Jan. 16: New York passes the first solitary confinement reform bill of its kind, the SHU Exclusion Law. The law, which took effect in 2011, requires the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to review and report its solitary confinement policies, remove mentally ill prisoners from isolation, ensure that those prisoners' standard of care is higher than that of other inmates, and build a new therapeutic, non-disciplinary prison unit.
2007 - Court orders New York to curb solitary for the mentally ill.
April 17: As part of the settlement in Disability Advocates Inc. v. New York State Office of Mental Health, seriously mentally ill prisoners are required to receive opportunities for out-of-cell time, as well as improved mental health screening and programming.
1998 - West Virginia is the first state to pass a law banning solitary for juveniles. (In 2012 two juveniles sued saying the state was not following its own law.)
April 1: Gov. Cecil Underwood approves legislation prohibiting the solitary confinement of juveniles, though the prohibition only applies to solitary confinement lasting longer than 10 days. It is not clear that the law is enforced in practice until 2012, when a lawsuit from two juvenile prisoners forces the Division of Juvenile Services to comply.