My jail stopped using solitary confinement. Here's why.
The Washington Post by Tom Dart
April 4, 2019
Tom Dart is sheriff of Cook County, Ill.
Recent criminal-justice reform ended the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. Now a group of lawmakers including Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are pushing to limit solitary confinement in federal prisons more broadly.
However, the realities of solitary confinement playing out in other correctional institutions across the country — including county jails, like the one I run — remain unaddressed and misunderstood.
Whether termed solitary confinement, disciplinary segregation or something else, it is almost always the same thing and produces the same disturbing and, too often, grave consequences. Individuals are confined alone in roughly 7-by-11-foot concrete cells for up to 23 hours a day with little human contact and no access to natural light. For as few as 60 minutes a day, they are allowed out of their cells to pace about another concrete area no larger than a dog run. In some cases, it’s outdoors; in others, not. This punishment is meted out for reasons ranging from disobeying an officer’s order to violent assaults on staff, and it can last anywhere from 24 hours to years. Most facilities make no accommodation for detainees suffering from severe mental illness.
And the damage solitary inflicts on people is indisputable. Years of research have demonstrated that the effects include mental illness, anger, despondency and self-harm; psychiatrist Stuart Grassian concluded that solitary can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome that includes hallucinations, panic attacks and paranoia.
Of course, some kind of disciplinary mechanism is needed, because jails are inherently volatile. Unlike prisons, jails generally don’t house people who have been convicted and sentenced — the population is overwhelmingly made up of people awaiting trial. At my jail in Cook County, Ill. — one of the nation’s largest, with about 5,500 detainees — we have seen an increasing length of stay for individuals in our custody, for many reasons including a painfully slow-moving criminal-justice system. Several of our current detainees have been here nearly 10 years without adjudication. Add to that frustration, the presence of members of fractious Chicago street gangs and society’s de facto decision to jail the mentally ill, and it’s easy to see how jails can become violent places. However, the solution to that violence is not solitary confinement.
I know there is a better way. I know because we have been doing it differently here in Chicago for nearly three years now. After years of handling violence just like most other jails, we realized that solitary was not solving the problem. It was contributing to it. And so, since May 2016, we have not housed any detainee in a solitary setting, not for even one hour.
Instead, we created a new place in the jail called the Special Management Unit (SMU) to house detainees who resort to violence and/or break the rules. There they can spend time in open rooms or yards with other detainees — as many as six or eight at a time — under direct supervision by staff members trained in conflict deescalation and resolution techniques and with precautions in place to ensure safety. Mental-health professionals provide weekly sessions on anger management, coping skills and conflict resolution. We also changed the disciplinary process for infractions to include other programming including thoughtful hearings and increased classes and activities .
Staffers, though skeptical at first, have been amazing. They have bought into this alternative to using isolation as a cudgel. After all, these new practices have not just benefited our detainees, they have also improved our working conditions. Since we introduced this model to our jail, detainee-on-detainee assaults have dropped significantly and assaults on staff plummeted. Last year we recorded the lowest number of total assaults since the SMU was established.
While the national discussion on criminal-justice reform tends to focus on sentencing, we must also reexamine the conditions of confinement we employ in jails, particularly the use of solitary. No reputable study has ever documented any positive effects from solitary confinement.
Regardless of your position on criminal-justice reform, you should realize that more than 70 percent of our jail detainees do not spend the rest of their days in prison — rather, they are released and return to their communities. This may be because charges against them are dropped, bonds are paid, plea agreements are signed, or they go to trial and are found not guilty. In all those cases, the result is the same — they are released from jail. What are we doing to our communities when we send them people, suddenly unmonitored, who have spent the past few months of their lives in a concrete room, devoid of any human contact?
The results often involve violence, volatility and recidivism. It is time solitary is addressed and eliminated in jails around the country.
Many people view inmates from a very limited perspective, looking at only a single point in their lives. My origami sculpture represents that I am more than a singular point in time. I am so much more that just that one piece. It is a representation of how each piece of my life is intricately woven and interconnected to the others, all interdependent on each other, forming a complex, multidimensional whole.
This sculpture is composed on 60 pieces of folded paper. The composition of this sculpture has symmetry. As a representation of myself, each piece of paper is interconnected to form a dynamic whole that gets its strength using nothing more than its individual pieces to hold it together. Each piece has its own power, each slightly different from the other, but all necessary for the balance and equilibrium of the whole.
The paper colors were chosen to represent the different aspects of my life some very bright and flowery, some contrasting, others complementary. The black piece represents the tragic circumstances that brought me to prison.
It is my hope that this sculpture will help to remind others to acknowledge the full complexity of all the pieces that shape our lives. EVERYONE has a complex life story. None of us should be judged solely by the piece that is the worst thing we’ve done. We are so much more than that.
A little about this origami technique: my paper sculpture was made by assembling folded paper modules into an integrated, 3-dimensional form, a technique that’s known as modular origami. This sculpture is based on a paper crystal design created in 1989 by David Mitchell.
Biography: I am a 61 year-old woman, incarcerated since 1999 for a triple murder. I’m serving a natural life sentence without the possibility of parole. I’m a first-time offender with no criminal history in my background.
As I tried to represent with my artwork, I’ve had a complex and convoluted journey leading to my incarceration. I was diagnosed with major depression and a serious adverse side effect of the prescribed antidepressant played a major role in my crime.
I started doing origami in prison as a creative outlet. I’ve become an origami enthusiast and have shared the joy of origami with other inmates by facilitating many origami activities.
Prison inmate describes conditions during 23-Day lockdown.
Channel 3000 News by Jamie Perez
February 7, 2019
"Although they told you guys we were getting hot meals, it took at least a week before we got a hot meal," Dontrell LeFlore said. "That was only Monday through Friday. We were asking them, 'What's up with the weekend?' And they were like, 'Well, no hot meals on the weekend.' It was hard to get this information out because we couldn't call home. We were scared to write because they open up our mail before it goes out. Now speaking out, I'm putting myself at risk. Being cut off from the world like that, that has never happened. In my 19 years in prison, I have never spent that much time without access to a phone or a visit."
Life Inside: I'm in Prison During the Shutdown
The Marshall Project by Seth Piccolo
January 17, 2019
We wait by the door for our turn at chow. It's Christmas dinner—really, early lunch since it's only 10:30 in the morning. Here, holiday meals are something to look forward to. They're never great, but the guys in the kitchen try hard.
The government is shut down right now so we're lucky to be having a holiday meal at all. Some of the officers here are getting a little touchy. Yesterday I saw an inmate ask one if she was going to open the music room. She stood there for a beat looking off somewhere else, then responded, "What I'm not going to do is be pushed during this shut down!" It gets a little more complicated being an inmate during these times, but finding yourself in a position in life where you have little to no power teaches you patience. We just shake our heads and laugh it off.
The phones haven't been working for the last few days. No calls are going out. It's a bad time for this to happen, it being the holidays. Everyone wants to call home, especially on Christmas.
Investigation into inmate’s suicide faults Maryland women’s prison’s treatment of people with disabilities : Washington Post
Investigation into inmate’s suicide faults Maryland women’s prison’s treatment of people with disabilities
Washington Post By Lillian Reed
An investigation into Maryland’s only prison for women following the 2017 suicide of an inmate found the facility violated the constitutional rights of people with disabilities who are placed in segregation and did not take sufficient steps to “prevent future harm.”
The investigation, released Friday by Disability Rights Maryland, reviewed the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women and its role in the death of inmate Emily Butler, who was found dead in her cell from an apparent suicide on Nov. 12, 2017. The investigative report details several findings and recommends changes on how the prison can better handle inmates with disabilities.
Disability Rights Maryland is the state’s designated authority under federal law for conducting investigations into allegations of abuse and negligence for people with disabilities. The group, along with Munib Lohrasbi of the Open Society Institute of Baltimore, launched a review after Butler’s death in segregation.
Sent to a Hospital, But Locked in Prison
The Marshall Project by Taylor Elizabeth Eldridge and Ashley Nerbovig
July 30, 2018
Andrew Butler’s hallucinations and paranoia began last summer. When they persisted into the fall, his father agreed to have him civilly committed — involuntarily sent to the state psychiatric hospital to receive treatment. A few months into his stay at New Hampshire Hospital, Butler was transferred.
To a prison.
National advocacy groups say New Hampshire is the only place in the country where the ward for people at risk of hurting themselves or others, called a secure psychiatric unit, is located in a prison.
Read the full story
Horrific deaths, brutal treatment: Mental illness in America's jails
The Virginian-Pilot by Gary Harki
August 23 (27), 2019
How America’s jails came to warehouse the people with mental illness is no secret.
Deinstitutionalization, the release of patients from large institutions, began when Thorazine started being widely used in the 1950s. The medication was the first effective antipsychotic drug, calming and sedating people with schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses.
By then, the horrific conditions inside America’s mental hospitals were well-known.
“It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world,” Nellie Bly wrote in “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” her 1887 book on Blackwell's Island Asylum in New York, America’s first municipal mental hospital.
Since the start of deinstitutionalization, jail populations have increased exponentially. In 1950, American jails held about 86,500 people. By 1983 there were more than 223,500 inmates. In 2016, the last year for which data is available, the Bureau of Justice Statistics counted more than 740,700, slightly down from the peak of 785,500 in 2008.
The bureau estimates that 44 percent of jail inmates have been told by a mental health professional that they have a mental disorder. More than a quarter of the jail population – roughly 186,000 people – are believed to be in serious psychological distress.
Read the full article
Article: A 'hellish world': the mental health crisis overwhelming America's prisons : Guardian by Alisa Roth
A 'hellish world': the mental health crisis overwhelming America's prisons
The Guardian March 31, 2018 by Alisa Roth
In America, jails and prisons have become the nation’s de facto mental healthcare providers – and the results are chilling ....
Across the country, correctional facilities are struggling with the reality that they have become the nation’s de facto mental healthcare providers, although they are hopelessly ill-equipped for the job. They are now contending with tens of thousands of people with mental illness who, by some counts, make up as much as half of their populations.
When They Get Out: how prisons
Atlantic (1999) by Sasha Abramsky
Popular perceptions about crime have blurred the boundaries between fact and politically expedient myth. The myth is that the United States is besieged, on a scale never before encountered, by a pathologically criminal underclass. The fact is that we're not. After spiraling upward during the drug wars, murder rates began falling in the mid-1990s; they are lower today than they were more than twenty years ago. In some cities the murder rate in the late twentieth century is actually lower than it was in the nineteenth century. Nonviolent property-crime rates are in general lower in the United States today than in Great Britain, and are comparable to those in many European countries.
Have You Ever Seen Someone Be Killed?
The New York Times May 25, 2018 :: Emily Badger
Researchers with the Boston Reentry Study were one year into their interviews, following 122 men and women as they returned from prison to their neighborhoods and families, when they asked the kind of question that’s hard to broach until you know someone well.
They prompted the study’s participants to think back to childhood. “Did you ever see someone get killed during that time?” ...
“The whole ethical foundation of our system of punishment I think is threatened once you take into account the reality of people’s lives,”
What this is about
Learning asks us to change – so that the world might be a place for all are free to thrive