Study commission offers way forward on solitary confinement reform

This year, I joined together with community groups, civil rights organizations, and formerly incarcerated Rhode Islanders to introduce legislation reforming the use of solitary confinement in our prison system. And I’m glad our efforts have kickstarted a real conversation on this controversial practice, and excited that the House unanimously created a study commission to continue the discussion.

During the legislation’s committee process, I spoke extensively with advocates on both sides of the issue. On the one hand, we heard from many Rhode Islanders who have experienced segregation themselves, and I continue to receive letters from inmates currently being held in solitary at the ACI with disturbing descriptions like these:

“In segregation we are locked in a cage for 23 hours each day with absolutely nothing to do. The weekend is total lockdown: no recreation, no shower, no movement.”

“I have 14 consecutive months without having the sun directly touch my skin or fresh air filling my lungs.”

“Over an extended period of time this takes a major strain on an inmate’s well being. People’s mental health starts to deteriorate. Emotionally, inmates become unstable and unhinged.”

“It is nearly impossible to maintain any type of relationship with loved ones. We go without seeing or speaking to any of our family members. We are not allowed to have any pictures. I forgot what my family looks like, it’s been so long. ”

“Last year there were at least 10 inmates sanctioned to a year or or more of segregation based on hearsay.”

On the other hand, we received strong opposition from leaders of the Department of Corrections, who expressed concerns about their ability to maintain proper order and security within the prison without unrestricted use of solitary confinement.

With such differing opinions from such important stakeholders, it was clear our effort required additional collaboration and research. That’s why I am so excited to lead this study commission.

I have three goals I hope this commission will accomplish. First, we need get to the bottom of what’s really happening at the ACI. For example, I have made simple data requests of the Department of Corrections - how many people are in each disciplinary class of confinement; the lengths of their confinement; the offenses for which they received that confinement; how many people in confinement have a mental illness or disability; etc. - and have been told that the DOC does not track even this basic information. But we need data in order to craft good policy, so this has got to change.

Second, we need to have a better sense of how other jurisdictions are addressing these important issues. President Obama signed an executive order banning solitary confinement for juveniles in the federal prison system; Maine reduced its population in segregation by over 50 percent and saw, in many cases, improved discipline outcomes; Mississippi has diverted so many prisoners from segregation it has been able to close whole units, saving millions of dollars; Colorado’s corrections system has fewer inmates in segregation than ours, despite a prison population around seven times larger than Rhode Island’s. Clearly, there are lessons out there to be learned. What’s working well? What’s not working well? What are the impacts of these changes on discipline, safety, recidivism, etc.? Let’s take the time to do a little research and find out.

Finally, we need to bring the different sides closer together. To achieve any sustainable reforms, it’s critical to build buy-in among different stakeholders. I feel very confident that there are policy changes that can improve conditions and outcomes for inmates, corrections officers, and prison administrators all at the same time, and we have a responsibility to find those answers and bring everyone to the table to implement them.

It’s an old cliche that study commissions are where legislation goes to die, and sometimes that can be the case. But there are also examples of study commissions creating space to make real, important changes. That’s the plan for this study commission, and I look forward to using the process to help build a more humane system for all.