Re-thinking The “Steel Door Solution”


The number of prisoners held in solitary confinement and their lengths of stay there are headed downward in three key states as corrections directors recognize that what Colorado corrections chief Rick Raemisch calls the “steel door solution” is inappropriate for many inmates.

Raemisch, joined by Jeffrey Beard, Secretary of California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Texas Criminal Justice executive director Brad Livingston, and Adam Gelb of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, addressed the Ninth Annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America yesterday at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

In California, where solitary confinement prompted an inmate hunger strike last year, Beard said that 600 inmates in solitary (officially called “administrative segregation” in most states) have been reviewed, and 400 have been returned to the general prison population.

Prisoners in California and elsewhere complain that they often are held in solitary for many years because prison rules make it almost impossible for them to return to regular cells.

Colorado’s Raemisch, who agreed that solitary is “overused” and can “multiply or manufacture mental illness” in inmate ranks, explained that prisoners may be required to pass through five levels of improvement to be discharged from solitary, but often make a misstep at one level or another that makes them start the process over again.

Raemisch, Wisconsin’s former corrections director, succeeded Colorado’s Tom Clements, who was killed last year by a former inmate who had been released directly from solitary into the outside world. Putting large numbers of prisoners into administrative segregation “is not what we’re supposed to be doing for a living,” Raemisch said, explaining that preparing prisoners for release back into society should be a high priority for prison wardens.

The population in Texas solitary cells also has declined in recent years from about 9,600 to 7,000, said Livingston.

Despite the declining reliance on solitary confinement, all three corrections directors agreed that it will remain necessary for some inmates, such as those who would kill or injure others if they were released.

Also during the discussion yesterday, Beard and Livingston described their states’ successful efforts to lower their overall prison populations—California’s under court order and Texas’ under an agreement by legislators in 2007 that the state needed to put more inmates on probation and parole in various forms of diversion from custody and treatment for substance abuse or other problems.

Texas, which has closed three prisons in recent years and cut its historically large prison rolls from 156,000 to 150,000, is expanding resources for prisoner re-entry into society.

California, which this week got a two-year extension from a federal judicial panel for reducing its prisoner numbers to 137.5 percent of capacity, has successfully transferred tens of thousands of non-violent, non-serious, non-sex offenders to county custody or supervision, Beard said. There is no proof that street crime has increased as a result, he said.

Pew’s Gelb said that public opinion had “shifted dramatically” in recent years from a get-tough-on-crime approach to one favoring use of evidence-based penalties for convicted people based on an assessment of their risk to society if released.

He said that many states are recognizing the value of these policies beyond the fact that adopting them may help with stretched state budgets.

“It’s not all just about the money,” he said.

The discussion was moderated by Martin Horn, a former corrections chief in Pennsylvania and New York City who now is on the John Jay College faculty and is a managing director of KeyPoint Government Solutions, Inc.

Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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