Locked Down Alone: New Report Documents Solitary Confinement in Ohio’s Prisons

by | June 3, 2016

This month the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and Disability Rights Ohio released a collaborative review of solitary confinement and mental illness in Ohio prisons. After extensive research, tours of Ohio prisons, and interviews and surveys of incarcerated individuals, their families and prison staff, they released the report Shining a Light on Solitary Confinement: Why Ohio Needs Reform.

The report seeks to accomplish three tasks. First, to unveil hidden truths of Ohio’s prisons—namely, that solitary confinement is overused and abused, and especially detrimental in its treatment of mental health. Second, the report challenges these practices with evidence, asserting that solitary confinement runs contrary to proper rehabilitation, increasing violence, exacerbating existing mental illnesses and provoking illness in those who did not previously suffer. Third, the report suggests specific reforms for the use of solitary confinement in Ohio’s prisons.

On a given day, there are approximately 2,952 people in solitary confinement in Ohio and over a quarter of them are mentally ill. According to the report, Ohio prisons “serve 10 times more people than our state psychiatric hospitals.” The majority of Ohio’s mentally ill reside within its prisons.

Although defined as total isolation for 21-24 hours a day, in reality 62 percent of isolated individuals in Ohio spend less than one hour outside their cell each day, the report states. Individuals are placed in solitary for both disciplinary and administrative purposes.

There are 27 prisons in Ohio, two of which are maximum-security facilities used for solitary confinement. These are the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF) and the Ohio State Penitentiary (OSP, pictured above). For individuals sentenced to one of these two prisons, at the very minimum they will spend their first two years in solitary confinement.

In SOCF, the units are loud. Metal bars cage the individuals, who frequently yell to one another through the openings. The lights are always on and always dim. The OSP, on the other hand, is quiet. Heavy concrete doors close the cells, preventing communication. But here, too, it is always daytime; the lights are never turned off.

On a given day, there are an average of 79 people in solitary confinement in each of Ohio’s prisons, and 21 of them suffer from mental illness. Solitary confinement not only worsens, but also creates mental illness. The report states, “If you did not have a mental illness going into isolation, it is likely you will when you are released.”

And despite the ODRC’s mental health policies, people classified as high-security have trouble receiving services. Robert Harmony at SOCF writes that he receives only medication and no therapy: “I’ll go lay down, and I’ll just cry. I don’t know what else to do.” Individuals in solitary confinement are 6.9 times more likely the harm themselves, and in Ohio, suicide is more common in confinement cells.

However, in Ohio prisons the mentally ill are disproportionately represented in solitary confinement with no regulation on the length of stay and inconsistent recovery services.

According to the report, of the $61 it costs to confine an individual each day, the ODRC spends only $3.06 on mental health treatment. Mental health programming consists of worksheets that are never reviewed. Other times programs are played on television rather than administered by professionals.

Although it costs 2-3 times as much to keep an individual in solitary versus in the general population, the expense does not pay off. When Michigan and Mississippi reduced the use of solitary, violence decreased. Time spent in solitary makes an individual more likely to return to prison.

Considering the fact that “more than 95% of people who go to prison are one day released back to their communities,” the report highlights the necessity of reform.

The report proposes reforms such as reducing reliance on solitary, reducing length of stays in solitary, better training staff, and implementing transitional units before release from isolation. However, central to these recommendations is the emphasis on mental health care behind bars. The report admonishes against placing vulnerable populations in solitary, such as those suffering from mental illness.

The ACLU of Ohio and Disability Rights Ohio challenge the state to open its eyes to the realities that reside within its prisons. Both the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) and Ohio prisons director Gary Mohr are in favor of reform, and this report lays out a plan of action.

Housing the sixth largest prison population in the United States, Ohio could become a nationwide leader in solitary confinement reform if it accepts the report’s recommendations. Without reform, as the report warns, Ohio’s prisons foster dangerous and unproductive communities.


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