Louisiana Wins Cautious Praise for ‘First Steps’ in Reducing Solitary Confinement

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Photo by Shannon O'Toole via Flickr

Louisiana corrections authorities have taken the “first steps” to reform a system that places more individuals into solitary confinement than anywhere else in the nation, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice.

Vera researchers, who have been working with the Louisiana Department of Corrections (LADOC) since 2017 as part of the institute’s “Safe Alternatives to Segregation” initiative,  reported that reforms are underway in several facilities to “reduce reliance on administrative segregation and extended lockdown, and [to] set limits of lengths of stay” in solitary confinement.

Such measures represented the “first steps towards revising the department’s policies to decrease reliance on indeterminate segregation sanctions in response to rule violations,” the report said.

“These initial steps…signal that possibilities for bolder and more impactful changes in Louisiana are on the horizon.”

But the 109-page report made clear that there was a lot more to do. In a series of grim findings, researchers determined that:

  • Some 17.4 percent of incarcerated individuals in the state were housed in administrative segregation, which is the formal term for solitary confinement and other forms of physical isolation—amounting to 3.9 times the national average—between 2015-2016;
  • African Americans were sent to solitary at a greater rate than whites, and more than one-third of those housed had a mental health diagnosis;
  • Between 12 percent and 15 percent of Louisiana’s female incarcerated population were women, who were sanctioned with solitary at a higher rate than men; and
  • Young adults aged 18-25 represented 12 per cent of all inmates placed in segregation cells, although they comprised just 6.6 per cent of the population in LADOC facilities.

One of the main drivers of the high numbers of individuals in solitary in Louisiana was the routine use of administrative segregation to punish “nonviolent and minor rule violations,” the report said.

Aside from changing the “disciplinary matrix” governing why and when prisoners are punished, a key long-term recommendation by the researchers was to phase out administrative segregation units altogether and replace them with “supportive settings tailored to the needs of different groups of incarcerated people,” the report said.

“For example cellblocks could be renovated and redesigned to support the creation of new housing units for people who require protective custody or do not feel safe.”

But the report also made clear that although the state correctional leadership was committed to the change, as part of what it called a “blossoming” of justice reforms in Louisiana, there was significant resistance on the part of rank-and-file correctional officers to ending solitary confinement.

Focus groups with security staff at every facility showed that most guards “viewed segregation as a tool for maintaining order,” and voiced “strong opposition to any ideas related to segregation reduction or improving living conditions in cellblocks.”

“In fact, line officers expressed strong beliefs that living conditions and privileges in these settings should be as minimal as possible,” the report said.

That was in stark contrast to the views of inmates, who provided a long list of complaints ranging from lack of air conditioning to the psychological trauma of being confined in tiny cells about the size of a parking space for long periods of time.

“You’re going to get claustrophobic,” said one. “You’re either going to start talking to yourself (or) you’re going to get anxiety attacks….It gets that way because humans were not meant to be in a cage.

“It’s bad enough you’re locked up, but when you put a person in a box…mentally it messes with me.”

The report praised some of LADOC’s recent measures since 2018, such as closing the notorious “Camp J” at the Angola prison, which housed more than 450 people on any given day in administrative segregation; and a pilot project to reduce the use of solitary at the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center.

Authorities were also developing a plan to mitigate the use of isolation among people on death row.

Although Louisiana stood out among the nation’s prison systems for its excessive use of solitary, it continued to be a “debilitative practice” in many other states, said Vera in a press release accompanying the report.

“The practice of housing someone in a cell for 22 hours a day with minimal human interaction or stimulation is used as a tool of punishment for approximately 61,000 incarcerated people on any given day,” said Vera.

“As in all other areas of the justice system, black and brown people are overwhelmingly harmed, as are those who already have mental health needs.”

Vera’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation project has partnered with 16 state and local departments of corrections to develop reform models with a view to ending solitary in its current form across the U.S.

In Washington State, for example, authorities have been undertaking reforms since 2011, including scrapping the use of solitary as a form of protective custody, and developing a “transition pod” that can safely help individuals integrate with the general prison population after administrative segregation.

“Ending solitary confinement is a critical step in the work to address mass incarceration,” said Vera project director Sara Sullivan.

“Our practical obligation—to reduce recidivism and make prisons, jails and communities safer—is as urgent as our moral obligation to honor the human dignity of all people.”

The complete Vera report on Louisiana can be downloaded here.

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