Study commission on solitary confinement kicks off

A new House commission met for the first time today to begin its study of the use of solitary confinement in the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institute (ACI).

The 19-member special legislative study commission, created by legislation (2016-H 8206A) sponsored by Rep. Aaron Regunberg (D-Dist. 4, Providence), is to perform a comprehensive study of the use of solitary confinement, its effects and alternatives and best practices used by other jurisdictions and draft recommendations for administrative or legislative changes.

“This study commission will take an even-handed, informed approach to examining the use of solitary confinement in our prison system. Our goals are to determine whether current policy and practice around the use of solitary confinement offers room for improvement, to study best practices from other states to collect lessons that may have value in Rhode Island, and to draft recommendations for effective administrative or legislative reforms. We have a well-balanced membership, with all relevant stakeholders significantly represented on the commission, and I look forward to an energetic fact-finding process and a vibrant and spirited dialogue about how we can best make our prison system as just, fair and — most importantly — effective as possible,” said Representative Regunberg, who was elected the commission’s chairman at today’s meeting.

The commission is to assess the rate and length of solitary confinement sentences, proportionality between disciplinary offenses and the solitary confinement sentences they induce, the psychological impact of prolonged solitary confinement on inmates, public safety implications of prolonged solitary confinement after inmates return to the community, the extent to which solitary confinement has a particular impact on vulnerable populations such as youth and those with disabilities, the fiscal impact of the current use of solitary confinement, the extent to which the Department of Corrections’ current record-keeping policies on the use of solitary confinement are adequate for making informed administrative decisions and alternatives to and best practices for reducing the use of solitary confinement, as developed by other jurisdictions, and the extent to which these alternatives impact cost, behavior, and other outcomes within prison systems.

The commission includes a diverse group of stakeholders, including legislators, current and former Department of Corrections administrators, correctional officers, representatives of relevant state agencies and prisoners’ rights advocacy organizations and a former inmate.

“As a former inmate at the Rhode Island ACI, I am thrilled to be able to join representatives from the Department of Corrections, the Brotherhood of Correctional Officers and many other stakeholders on this commission,” said Shakur El-Amin, a member of the commission. “Too often when it comes to issues of criminal justice and prison policy, the perspective of those directly impacted — the incarcerated — is never at the table. But inmates are part of this conversation, and nearly all of us will rejoin our communities, so we need to be in on the discussion and part of the solution. That’s what I look forward to doing on this commission.”

Many studies have found that long-term solitary confinement can produce psychological damage with symptoms such as hallucinations, hypersensitivity to noise or touch, paranoia, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), increased suicide risk and uncontrollable rage or fear. The risks are higher for juveniles, whose brains are still developing, and for those with mental illness.

Those effects can result in inmates having more difficulty complying with prison rules, defeating the purpose of solitary confinement. Even those who aren’t mentally ill when they enter solitary confinement can be left with lasting psychological effects that they take with them when they are released from prison into the community.

The commission includes Chairman Regunberg, Rep. Jean Philippe Barros (D-Dist. 59, Pawtucket), Rep. Patricia L. Morgan (R-Dist. 26, West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick), Department of Corrections Director Wall, Department of Corrections Mental Health Director Dr. Louis Cerbo; Richard Ferruccio of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, former Corrections administrator Roberta Richman, former inmate Shakur El-Amin, John Prince of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, Jordan Seaberry of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, Parole Board Chairwoman Laura Pisaturo, Michael DiLauro of the Office of the Public Defender, Office of the Mental Health Advocate Director Meghan Clingham, Kenny Alston of the Rhode Island Department of Health, Brad Brockman of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights, Kevin Nerney of the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council, Department of Corrections Assistant Director of Institutions and Operations James Weeden, former Corrections administrator Nancy Bailey and psychiatrist Dr. Christopher Matkovic.