Solitary Confinement in Delaware
A 2015 Department of Justice report found that more than 14 percent of Delaware prisoners are held in solitary confinement. This is the highest percentage in the nation, and more than twice the national average. Delaware also has the third highest rate of prison overcrowding in the nation, exceeded only by Illinois and Alabama.
The Community Legal Aid Society Inc. (CLASI), along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have filed a lawsuit against the Delaware Department of Corrections (DOC) seeking to end cruel and unusual punishment of those with mental illness, and have entered into a prolonged mediation process with the DOC.
The American Correctional Association completed a Restrictive Housing Assessment in March, 2016 which was highly critical of policies and management of Restricted Housing in Delaware. The News Journal recently published an extensive article on the abuses associated with solitary confinement titled Calls to Rethink Delaware’s Solitary Confinement.
The Need for Legislative Reform
The problems associated with Solitary Confinement in Delaware have been amply documented. The statistics indicate that the overuse of solitary confinement in Delaware is much greater than in other states. There is a growing national movement for reform, and some states have reduced the percentage of inmates in solitary to a small fraction of Delaware’s rate.
UUDAN has drafted legislation to reform solitary confinement in Delaware based on adaptation of New Jersey Senate Bill 51which has passed their Senate and is awaiting action in the N. J. Assembly. The draft UUDAN bill is based the federal Justice Department’s “Guiding Principles” issued early in 2016.
This bill provides a comprehensive model for legislative reform which is needed even if the mediation of the CLASI/ACLU lawsuit is successful. The lawsuit is narrowly focused on people afflicted with mental health and the constitutional standard of cruel and unusual punishment is a low bar. Reform of our correctional system should be targeted at a higher standard. Legislative reform will address the full range of vulnerable populations as well as other critical issues, including the release of prisoners from solitary confinement directly into the community.
Across the country, states are waking up to the fact that we must address our overreliance on solitary confinement. Long-term isolation costs too much, does nothing to rehabilitate prisoners, and exacerbates mental illness – or even causes it in prisoners who were healthy when they entered solitary. Officials in some states that formerly relied heavily on solitary confinement are now realizing that they should use public resources on proven policies that promote safe communities and fair treatment, and are successfully reducing the use of solitary – at the same time saving their states millions and reducing violence in the prisons. It’s time for more states, and the federal Bureau of Prisons, to follow suit.
Over the last two decades corrections systems have increasingly relied on solitary confinement as a prison management tool – even building entire institutions called “supermax prisons” where prisoners are held in conditions of extreme isolation, sometimes for years or decades. But solitary confinement jeopardizes our public safety, is fundamentally inhumane and wastes taxpayer dollars. We must insist on humane and more cost-effective methods of punishment and prison management.
A New York City study found that incidents of self-harm were seven times higher among individuals held in solitary
confinement. Approximately 7 percent of the prison population is in solitary confinement, but they account for 50% of prison suicides. The challenges of suicide in a bare cell have driven some to such acts as jumping headfirst off their bunks and biting through the veins in their wrists.
Our law sends people to prison as punishment, not for additional punishment or torture. The deprivation of freedom alone is supposed to be the price society exacts for crimes committed. Additional suffering whether it is violence, brutality, rape or solitary confinement is “extrajudicial” punishment. Solitary confinement operates as a second sentence or a “sentence within a sentence” doled out without the benefit of due process.
A third to a half of prisoners in solitary suffer from serious mental illness. Some were placed in solitary because of their mental illness while others have been driven insane by the isolation. Some of them scream in desperation all day and night.
Solitary confinement isn’t just a temporary tool for prison management. A significant number of people remain in solitary for decades. A history of gang affiliation often dooms prisoners to solitary confinement, even if they don’t exhibit violent behavior.
Prisoners in solitary have no control over anything in their lives including the light, sound, smell, and daily routine. Surveillance cameras are operating 24/7 365 days a year. Having your entire world just a few feet away destroys your distance vision. After decades of shuffling in prison slippers, prisoners walk like toddlers. Language skills also deteriorate. A decline in brain function can be detected after only seven days of solitary confinement.
The Deep End of the Correctional Pool
Despite claims to the contrary, solitary confinement does not reduce the level of prison violence. Studies suggest that violence levels actually drop significantly with reductions in the use of solitary confinement. Colorado decreased its use of segregated housing by 85 percent and prisoner on staff assaults are the lowest they have been since 2006.
The State of Washington is also reducing the number of prisoners in solitary confinement. Bernie Warner, head of the state’s Department of Corrections refers to solitary confinement as “the deep end of the correctional pool”. He believes that’s where reform has to begin. The prison staff is now delivering group programming to prepare prisoners in solitary for integration into the general prison population.
Synopsis of Proposed Delaware Bill
This bill restricts use of isolated confinement to ensure the safe and humane operation of correctional facilities based on the “Guiding Principles” presented in the
U. S. Department of Justice’s Final Report on Restrictive Housing, January, 2016.
Isolated confinement should only be used when necessary and should not be used against vulnerable populations including inmates under 21 or over 55, and those with disability based on mental health, developmental disability, auditory of visual impairment, serious medical condition, pregnancy, or those perceived to be to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex.
Isolated confinement should not be used for time periods that foster psychological trauma, psychiatric disorders, or serious long-term brain damage. An inmate should not be placed in isolated confinement for more than 15 consecutive days or for more than 20 days during a 60 day period.
An inmate should not be placed in isolated confinement unless there is reasonable cause to believe that the inmate would create a substantial risk of immediate serious harm to himself of another. An inmate should not be placed in isolated confinement before receiving a personal and comprehensive medical and mental health examination. A clinician will evaluate each inmate placed on isolated confinement on a daily basis.
Living spaces used for isolated confinement are to be properly ventilated, lit, temperature-controlled, clean, and equipped with properly functioning sanitary fixtures. An inmate held in isolated confinement shall not be denied access to food, water, or any other basic necessity.
An inmate shall not be directly released from isolated confinement to the community, and shall not be placed in isolated confinement during the final 180 days of the inmate’s term of incarceration.