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Illinois looks to rein in use of solitary confinement

Illinois joins a roster of several states, and the federal government, that have moved to restrict the practice of solitary confinement in prisons.

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    Brian Nelson, a prisoners' rights coordinator for the Uptown People's Law Center, poses for a photo at the UPLC office in Chicago. Mr. Nelson served 26 years in prison for armed robbery and murder, many of which were in solitary. Illinois lawmakers are pushing state prisons to restrict their use of solitary confinement, joining a national movement that has policymakers rethinking a decades-old punishment that critics say has deep psychological impacts.
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Illinois is the latest state in a national movement to reconsider the use of solitary confinement, a punishment that some say has severe psychological consequences on inmates that can last years after their release from prison.

Illinois state Rep. La Shawn Ford (D) co-sponsored legislation to limit solitary confinement to no more than five consecutive days and five total days during a 150-day period. The legislation would also require prisons to allow inmates in solitary to spend four hours per day outside of their cells. This would be a major overhaul of the current system, in which prisoners can be isolated for weeks or even years at a time. 

A House committee approved the bill on Wednesday. It is now pending a vote by the full chamber.

"If a bill like this passed, it would be a real milestone in solitary reform," Jean Casella, the co-director of Solitary Watch, a web-based project to monitor solitary confinement across the country, told the Associated Press.

Illinois joins a roster of several states, and the federal government, that have moved to restrict the practice of solitary confinement in prisons, a method that has been widely used to punish violent behavior, but also for disobeying orders, since at least the 1980s.

Legislation is pending in Rhode Island to limit stays in solitary confinement to no more than 15 days at a time. Colorado stopped placing mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement in 2014, and in December, New York agreed to reduce its solitary confinement population in a "historic" settlement, as the U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin called it. And last fall, the California penitentiary system agreed to release 1,500 inmates from solitary confinement as part of a settlement of a class action lawsuit.

As the legislation is pending in Illinois, which had at least 1,830 inmates in solitary confinement as of April 14, out of an estimated 45,000 inmates overall, state corrections officials are opposing it, saying it goes too far and doesn't give them an opportunity to make changes on their own.  

Mike Atchison, the chief of operations at the Illinois Department of Corrections says the department is already working to reduce the use of solitary confinement, though sometimes it's necessary to protect other inmates.

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"There are aspects, quite a few aspects of the bill, that seriously diminish the department's ability to separate the most violent offenders from the general population," Mr. Atchison told AP. "We have an obligation to protect other offenders."

Whether or not the legislation becomes law in Illinois, the tides are shifting across the country.

In January, President Obama announced a handful of executive actions on solitary confinement in federal prisons. Some banned the practice for juveniles; others limit its use for adult inmates, as Henry Gass reported for the Monitor.

Mr. Obama announced the actions in a Washington Post op-ed that opened with the story of 16-year-old Kalief Browder, who was accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 and sent to Rikers Island jail to await trial. His stay there included 400 days of solitary confinement. Mr. Browder was released without trial or a conviction in 2013 and committed suicide two years later.

"In our criminal justice system," wrote the president, "the punishment should fit the crime – and those who have served their time should leave prison ready to become productive members of society. How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity."

About 82,000 inmates are in solitary on any given day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Former inmates who have been held in solitary confinement have expressed mental distress long after their time in isolation have had increased difficulty functioning in society, researchers have found.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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