Solitary Confinement Blamed for Mental Illness and Death: Report

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johnny perez

Johnny Perez of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture sits in a mock solitary cell installed at the John Jay College campus in 2018—similar to the one he spent three years in at Rikers. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

Solitary confinement in the American prison system has long been scrutinized and urged to be used only “if absolutely necessary.” To that end, according to a Citizens for Prison Reform (CPR) report released Tuesday, the Michigan Department of Corrections continues to use dangerous methods of confinement punishment — like food and water restriction — exacerbating mental health problems and contributing to prisoner deaths. 

The report, entitled “Solitary: The Family Experience” was published after researchers compiled interviews and surveys of 30 family members who currently have or have had a loved one incarcerated in Michigan prison solitary confinement, as well as analyzed reports and data given to them by the corrections department.  

“The conditions in solitary confinement are inhumane and reflect a broader problem within the prison culture,” Lois Pullano, executive director of Citizens for Prison Reform, told the Detroit Free Press. “Such dehumanizing practices do not make our prisons or communities safer.”

What’s worse, Pullano points out, is the fact that the people who are most commonly in segregation or isolation are experiencing mental health issues, and are separated for low-level violations.

The Solitary Experience

The researchers looked at data from June 2020 to the present, uncovering that the Michigan Department of Correction noted 3,211 people living in “some form of isolation.”

Among those, approximately 20 percent have been segregated for 6-12 months; 32 percent for 1-2 years; and shockingly, 47 percent have been in isolation for more than two years — including 11 percent (Over 350 people) who have been isolated for the past 5-20 years. 

From numbers at the end of January, researchers said there were still 904 prisoners in administrative segregation. 

“This is in stark contrast to the international guidelines known as the Mandela Rules, which state that ‘solitary confinement may only be imposed in exceptional circumstances, and ‘prolonged’ solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days is regarded as a form of torture,” the report declares. 

The segregation experienced by some inmates is starkly similar to isolation, where the individual separated doesn’t see other people except through the foot slot or while walking to the shower or yard. 

They only get a single hour a day outside, where they’re “placed in a caged area alone.” Showers are for 10-minutes three times a week, and one 15-minute phone call, if they’re given phone privileges. 

As of last June, CPR researchers identified “102 prisoners housed in acute mental health units, and 26 prisoners housed in observation units because they were deemed at high risk of harming themselves,” the Detroit Free Press detailed. 

Families expressed to researchers that their loved ones are experiencing their mental health quickly deteriorate as a result of the separation and isolation, with some being described as “stressed, unstable, losing comprehension of their surroundings, having delusions and hallucinations, eating paint chips off the walls,” as well as changes in personality and suffering from self-mutilating behaviors, according to the report.  

Advocates say this is cause for “significant concern,” which the Michigan Department of Corrections seems to agree with. 

After looking for comment by the Detroit Free Press, department spokesman Chris Gautz said on Monday that the department agrees on the importance of reducing those in isolation, “especially with regard to those with a serious mental illness.” 

For some families, this is too little, too late. 

Missed Warning Signs

Danielle Dunn, a Washtenaw County resident, is close to settling a federal lawsuit she brought against the Alger Correctional Facility after the 2019 death of her brother, Jonathan Lancaster, 38. 

Lancaster was physically healthy at the start of his sentence, but suffered from mental health and addiction issues. After being placed in segregation apparently in response to an altercation with another inmate, his condition deteriorated rapidly, losing 51 pounds, the Detroit Free Press explains. 

Lancaster was eventually moved to an observation cell because of his behavior but was found dead restrained to a chair, severely dehydrated, and sitting in his own bodily fluids. 

Since Lancaster’s death, the CPR researchers found that “numerous inmates have died of dehydration and heat exhaustion when their water was turned off” considering food and water restriction is a common form of punishment.

Recommendations

“The damage caused by solitary confinement cannot be understated,” the researchers write to begin outlining their recommendations. 

Beyond the fact that CPR researchers urge the Michigan Department of Corrections to significantly reduce its use of solitary confinement, they also say it should end for vulnerable prisoners — like those with medical or mental health issues, anyone under 21-years-old or over the age of 55, pregnant woman and new mothers, and those who are LGBTQ, according to the CPR report. 

Other recommendations include: 

    • Invest in officer training related to mental health, first aid, and de-escalation techniques;
    • Replace the practice of isolation with humane, safe, and effective alternatives;
    • End the use of restraints; and,
    • Limit the loss of privileges.

The researchers recognize the importance of other voices, such as those who experienced solitary confinement, correctional officers, and healthcare staff at these facilities, and say that they must be consulted as well for systemic reform. 

Overall, the CPR researchers ask for transparency and accountability through independent oversight. 

“We need to take action now so that no other mother needs to watch her child suffer,” the report concludes.

The full report can be accessed here. 

Andrea  Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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