Seven Days in Solitary [6/17/19]

Our Weekly Roundup of News and Views on Solitary Confinement

by | June 17, 2019

• In a Spanish-language broadcast, Univision reported that a hunger strike in support of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act has reached 29 participants. The advocates gathered outside the office of New York Senate Majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, calling for the HALT bill to be brought to a vote. The HALT bill currently has the support of 34 Senators—more than enough to pass—and has the votes in needs in the Assembly as well, but legislative leadership has not yet brought it to the floor, and the governor has not committed to signing it. The bill would limit the use of solitary confinement to fifteen days across the state of New York, in accordance with international guidelines, which consider prolonged isolation to be torture. Univision cited that 30 percent of suicides in New York City correctional facilities occur in solitary confinement. According to another piece on the hunger strike, published last week in Gothamist, New York state prisons currently hold 2,402 adults in isolated Special Housing Units, as well as at least 1,000 in a form of isolation called keeplock. The HALT bill proposes effective alternatives to the practice that would promote mental health treatment and rehabilitation over the use of isolation.

• KSTP reported that Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed into law a bill mandating mental health screenings and daily wellness checks for people with mental illness held in solitary confinement as well as a ban on releasing people directly out of prison from solitary confinement. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 1,600 people have been isolated for at least six months and 437 people have been held in solitary for at least a year across the state. The bill additionally allocated $10 million to hire new corrections officers. Before he signed the bill, Walz said, “We want to provide our corrections officers all the tools necessary they need, both to maintain order and to move people toward a healthier place when they’re on release from incarceration.”

• North Carolina Health News reported that a North Carolina Special Senate Committee released its recommendations for the state’s Department of Public Safety, following an increase in violence within prisons and a high staff turnover rate in 2017. The senators’ recommendations included better mental health services for both prison staff and incarcerated people, a mental health evaluation process, and a reduction in the use of solitary confinement. In 2016, former state prison Commissioner David Guice declared a goal to end the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, pointing to a decrease in staff assaults in units with reduced use of solitary. While the state issued new policies that year aimed at preventing suicides, enhancing mental health services, and preventing people with mental illness from being placed in solitary confinement, people with mental illness reportedly continue to face extended periods of solitary confinement.

• The University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law published an article analyzing the constitutional status of solitary confinement, specifically under the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The article finds that to date, no court ruling has declared the use of solitary confinement unconstitutional in itself, though a couple landmark cases have ruled the use of solitary on specific populations to be unconstitutional. Madrid v. Gomez, for example, ruled that the use of solitary on people with serious mental illness (SMI) violates the “evolving standards of humanity or decency” but the violations do not apply for people without SMI. This sort of distinction allows for ambiguity in enforcement and ultimately leaves in place the structural existence of solitary. Since the current Supreme Court is unlikely to rule against the practice in the near future, the article claims the ball has fallen into the lower courts’ hands to use the “evolving standards of decency” clause to ban the practice effectively.

• According to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Abolitionist Law Center has filed a lawsuit on behalf of 20-year-old Kimberly Andrews, claiming the Allegheny County Jail has violated her 14th Amendment rights by keeping her solitary confinement. Despite Andrews’ history of epilepsy, suicide attempts, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric disabilities, jail officials have kept her in solitary confinement for more than 70 days. According to attorney Bret Grote with the Abolitionist Law Center, Andrews has attempted suicide three times since her placement in solitary. The lawsuit claims Andrews has faced abuse from prison officials, has been denied basic hygiene products, and was not provided medical attention until eight hours after she suffered a seizure and woke up in her own vomit and urine. Grote says, “Each day Ms. Andrews remains in solitary confinement her life is in grave danger.”

• The Washington City Paper reported that Washington D.C.’s public psychiatric hospital St. Elizabeth’s has been illegally using seclusion and restraints, especially in the past five years. The disability rights program at the University Legal Services reported accounts of the hospital isolating mental health patients in “seclusion rooms” and “safety suites,” for up to 25 days at a time. Between 2014 and 2018, the percent of patients locked in seclusion during a given month raised from 2.55 to nearly six percent, though this did not include “safety suite” seclusion. In the same time period, the number of hours patients spent in restraints increased by over 1000. St. Elizabeth’s CEO claims the use of isolation “is an intensive therapeutic intervention that has been used to address consistent, violent behavior by six patients.” But the former head of the Department of Mental Health, Martha Knisley, who helped write DC’s regulations on seclusion, said, “that is nonsense. A [locked] room is seclusion—that’s what seclusion is.”

• The Gothamist covered a rally for 27-year-old transgender woman Layleen Polanco, who died last week in her cell at Rikers Island jail in New York. Polanco had been held on a $500 bail for prior drug and prostitution charges, after misdemeanor assault charges were dropped. Two trans people formerly incarcerated on Rikers claimed that Polanco had been held in solitary confinement despite her history of seizures. “The SHU [Special Housing Unit] is horrible. They put you there and they just leave you there,” adding that Polanco had a seizure the previous week and did not receive medical attention for over 25 minutes. But the Department of Corrections responded that Polanco was being held in the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU), not the SHU, and was not subjected to solitary confinement. According to their attorney, Polanco’s family continues to search for unanswered questions about the facts of her death.

• Maine Public Radio reported that 59-year-old Douglas Burr, currently incarcerated at Maine State Prison, has reached trial in a Maine Superior Court for his case claiming his 14th Amendment right to due process was violated when he was held in solitary confinement for two years. Burr claims he was sentenced to twenty days of solitary confinement in the Special Management Unit (SMU) over accusations of drug trafficking, though no evidence was presented during the disciplinary hearing. But after the twenty days passed, Burr remained in isolation, ultimately for nearly two years, even after the disciplinary charges were dropped. Burr was released from segregation in 2016 and now calls for a fair disciplinary process that holds officers accountable for the solitary sentences they dole out.

• The Appeal reported that the oversight board at Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Virginia has proposed adding $7 million to their budget to hire 113 officers and one psychiatrist. In the last fifteen years, the jail has seen 68 deaths in their custody and spent millions of dollars settling lawsuits, including a recent $3 million settlement to the family of Jamycheal Mitchell, who died in the jail after his arrest over stealing $5 worth of food. Last year, the Department of Justice released a report, finding 400 out of the 1,100 people held at the jail in June 2017 had a serious mental illness (SMI). The report found that up to 250 people with SMI were isolated on a given day, with an average of 70 people a day. Rhonda Thissen, Executive Director of the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, expressed concern with the lack of transparency, since her requests for health care reviews of the jail were denied. “I don’t know, at this moment, what those 113 positions reflect,” she said. “That may include staff that could provide services. My suspicion is that it’s probably not.”


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  • bronxteach

    I read that New York reached an agreement where solitary will be limited to 30 days. They didn’t pass the HALT bill, but made some other agreement with the governor. Does anyone know when this goes into effect? My godson has been in solitary for a month and a half now and he has mental illness. I’m very worried.

    • Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

      Please read our latest post on this. Under the compromise–which was opposed by most advocates–the prison system has several YEARS to implement the 30-day limit, unfortunately too late to help your godson. If he has a diagnosis of serious mental illness he already should not be put in solitary under NY State law, although there are ways for prisons to get around this and they often do. Disability Rights New York or Prisoner Legal Services of New York might be able to give you advice on how to help your godson. Good luck.

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