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Solitary Reform: An Unexpected Leader

By Taylor Poor, NAMI Education Program Coordinator

In the summer of 2007, Deputy Commissioner Emmitt Sparkman of the Mississippi Department of Corrections did what no one had done before. He tried emptying solitary cells, rather than filling them up, as a strategy to reduce prison violence. His experiment worked, catapulting Mississippi into the unexpected role of U.S. leader in state prison reform, serving as inspiration for states like Colorado, New York, Illinois and Maine, who have begun to follow Mississippi’s example in seeking alternatives to solitary confinement in state penitentiaries.

Solitary confinement, sometimes termed “restricted housing” or “segregation,” refers to a state of total confinement for 22-24 hours a day, with limited or no human contact, as well as reduced natural light, visitation, and access to reading material, television or radios.

Across the United States, 80,000 prisoners languish in solitary on any given day. This number includes not only “the worst of the worst”—the country’s supposedly most violent or dangerous prisoners—but also prisoners held in “disciplinary segregation” for minor infractions or for filing grievances or lawsuits, as well as those held in “protective custody” for their own safety (i.e., children or other vulnerable populations).

But the majority of prisoners held in solitary confinement have a severe mental illness or cognitive disability, meaning that they have likely been confined for behavior inextricably associated with their illness—“acting out”—not for deliberately breaking prison rules. For these prisoners, disciplinary confinement is not corrective; it’s traumatizing. Prisoners in solitary confinement attempt suicide at much higher rates than prisoners in the general population. Courts have repeatedly found that forcing prisoners with mental illness to undergo solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

In 2002, the National Prison Project of the ACLU, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the law firm Holland & Knight sued on behalf of death row prisoners at Unit 32, the 1,000-cell supermax facility at Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman). The Fifth Circuit demanded relief for the death row prisoners, but conditions in the rest of the unit worsened until a new suit in 2005. This time, Fifth Circuit demands for relief extended throughout the entire unit, including new provisions for the reform of institutional procedures and the classification system for prisoner distribution.

Standardizations of MDOC prisoner classification criteria, developed throughout 2006, demonstrated 80 percent of the population in solitary at Parchman did not need to be there. Despite continued increases in prison violence at the penitentiary during the spring of 2007, Deputy Commissioner Sparkman released hundreds of men from the segregation units back into the general population, and came to live at Parchman himself, speaking with and interacting with these men on a daily basis.Within three months, “serious incidents” of violence at the prison decreased by 70 percent, and Unit 32 was eventually shut down, saving the state $8 million annually.

Since Sparkman’s successful experiment in decreasing solitary confinement in Mississippi, many states have begun to follow this lead.

In April 2011, Deputy Commissioner Sparkman, accompanied by offender classifications expert Dr. James Austin, conducted an external review of the Colorado Department of Corrections Administrative Segregation operations. In March of this year, the Colorado Department of Corrections announced plans to close a wing of its Centennial Correctional Facility that contains 316 solitary confinement beds, effective in February 2013.

In the fall of 2011, Maine State Prison began responding to a “nationwide trend,” as well as to the recommendations of Deputy Commissioner Sparkman, by sending fewer inmates into solitary confinement. By mid-June of this year, the segregation unit population had decreased from 139 cells to between 35 and 45 inmates on any given day.Prison officials have noticed substantial reductions in violence (and, accordingly, disciplinary responses) as well as in prisoner self-mutilation.

In February 2012, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn recommended that the state shut down its notorious Tamms Correctional Center,a supermax facility where 54 prisoners had been held in solitary confinement for more than 10 years as of 2009. While the state budget released at the end of May did allocate funds toward the Tamms supermax prison, allowing it to stay open, the budget will also convert Tamms from a supermax facility to a medium-security prison.

Lawsuits filed this year in Arizona and last year in California may lead to further much-needed reform.

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