Of the 3,211 inmates held some version of solitary confinement within a Department of Corrections prison, nearly half – 47 percent – have been there for more than two years, said a report released Tuesday from the group Citizens for Prison Reform, though the agency disputes data in the report.
As of June 2020, data obtained by CPR also notes that another 20 percent had been in a version of solitary for 6 to 12 months. And 32 percent had been in that environment for between 1 and 2 years, with 11 percent being isolated anywhere from 5 to 20 years, the report says.
These statistics are based off inmates held in either administrative segregation or in Level V cells, both of which are some of the many forms of solitary confinement MDOC uses, the report says.
“This is in stark contrast to the international guidelines known as the Mandela Rules, which state that ‘solitary confinement may only be imposed in exceptional circumstances,’ and ‘prolonged’ solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days is regarded as a form of torture,” it says.
The report also indicates about 65 percent of those held in solitary confinement are Black.
MDOC itself, however, disputes the data presented in the report. Department spokesperson Chris Gautz said it classifies solitary confinement as being held in a cell for more than 22 hours – as do most other states – and a number of the holding types the report notes as being a form of solitary confinement are not that at all as far as the agency is concerned.
He said the department currently houses 1,509 inmates in solitary confinement, less than half the amount the report claims.
The CPR report lists six types of what it considers solitary confinement: administrative, temporary, punitive, Level V, observation cells and mental health programming. There are different ways a prisoner may end up in each cohort of segregation, but for each group segregation can last anywhere from a week to potentially their entire prison sentence.
CPR’s report notes, as of June 2020, there were:
- 835 inmates in administrative segregation, which “is the most restrictive level of security classification and the most common type of solitary confinement,” and is likely to see a person held there for several months before cycling out of confinement, then back in again;
- 319 inmates in temporary segregation, which is “used to remove prisoners from the general population during intake” and is typically limited to seven days;
- 130 inmates in punitive segregation, also known as detention, which is “used as punishment for … violations such as assault, sexual misconduct, substance abuse or other dangerous or threatening behavior,” and can last anywhere from 30 days to a year;
- 890 inmates in Level V general population, which are not considered segregation, however, the report notes them as such due to the fact people in Level V “typically remain in cell for 23 hours per day, and have limited access to programming and recreation;”
- More than 102 inmates in mental health programs, which were intended to be therapeutic for persons with severe and persistent mental illness but are treated similarly to Level IV and V prisoners, typically only getting “two hours out of cell, do not eat communally with others and have limited showers, phone calls and personal property,” and,
- 26 inmates in observation cells, where someone is placed if they are at a high risk of hurting themselves – although they, too, are typically placed in an isolation cell and forced to wear a knee-length suicide gown, “despite the deleterious effects of solitary on one’s mental health.”
Mr. Gautz, however, said only administrative segregation, temporary segregation and punitive segregation fit the state’s definition of solitary confinement. He also disputed the idea that some inmates, like Level V prisoners, are held in their cells for more than 22 hours.
“They’re counting a lot of things in here that aren’t segregation … they’re beefing up their numbers by adding things that shouldn’t be included,” Mr. Gautz said. “We recognize that this is an issue and has been an issue, which is why (Director Heidi Washington) included it in our strategic plan that we laid out three or four years ago now and are working on creating new programs.”
Historically, the number of individuals put in solitary confinement has been on a downward trend for some years now, Mr. Gautz said. In 2007-08, the daily average number of prisoners in administrative segregation was 1,314. By 2018-19 that number had declined to 549 per day.
He said there is also a strong effort in the department to eliminate the use of solitary confinement for individuals with mental illness entirely. During that same 2007-08 time period, the daily average number of prisoners in administrative segregation who had a serious mental illness was 56. By 2018-19 that number had dwindled to an average of four per day.
Along with statistics, however, CPR’s report also includes anonymous testimony from the family members of inmates who either had been or currently are held in solitary confinement. In several instances, people say their incarcerated loved one had either been outright denied food, water or medical care, or that what was provided was either inadequate or rationed.
One-third of families noted that their loved one was either denied meals or fed what was referred to as a “food loaf,” which CPR notes is “a disgusting concoction of blended food cooked into a loaf.” Another third noted their incarcerated family member had the water connection in their cell “deliberately turned off.”
“The majority of families felt their loved ones received degrading and dehumanizing treatment,” the report says. “They described some of the correctional officers as well as mental health and nursing staff as hardened, demeaning, threatening, and in some cases, abusive. Their loved ones described being told they were ‘ugly, worthless, nonhuman, and that their life has no meaning.’ Some families also believed their loved one was targeted for retaliation or bullying, while others said their loved one was mostly ignored, receiving no attention even when they needed help.”
Some families, however, did say their loved one was treated fairly by corrections officers, mental health and nursing staff, going so far as to describe them as “polite and upright and caring.”
In addition to being denied or rationed things like food, 47 percent of family respondents reported their loved one also experienced being hogtied or put into therapeutic restraints for sometimes up to 24 hours. Almost 30 percent of respondents also said their loved one reported being tasered, while 18 percent said MDOC officers used chemical agents like gas or pepper spray to subdue their loved one.
One anonymous individual reported that their brother was, “restrained and tied to a bed for an entire week and was forced to urinate and defecate on himself.”
Half of all respondents also indicated there were issues with extreme temperature changes in solitary, with units getting to over 100 degrees in the summertime – with no real circulation – and becoming frigid in the winter, as inmates were supplied with minimal clothing and no blanket.
In response to these allegations, and the data it collected, CPR outlines 10 reform recommendations MDOC can implement to eliminate the use of solitary confinement altogether.
These recommendations include:
- Eliminating indefinite or prolonged isolation in all forms and for all people;
- Banning isolation for vulnerable populations – especially in youth under the age of 21, people with disabilities, elders over the age of 55, pregnant women and more;
- Investing in officer training related to mental health first aid and de-escalation techniques;
- Replacing the practice of isolation with humane, safe and effective alternatives;
- Ending the use of restraints such as hogtying, top of bed restraints and chemical sprays;
- Informing, supporting and encouraging connection to families with a loved one in solitary;
- Not withholding food or water, nor allowing people to overheat, in segregation cells;
- Improving access to trauma-informed health and mental health services;
- Limiting loss of privileges, and
- Ensuring transparency, accountability and independent oversight in the use of isolation and in conditions of confinement in general.