By RAY WILBUR
Capital News Service
LANSING — Prison reform advocates worry that the lack of policies for solitary confinement in Michigan prisons has exacerbated violence and mental health problems among inmates.
Michigan has no age or time limits for putting inmates in administrative segregation, commonly known as solitary confinement. And while almost half the states ban solitary confinement for juveniles, Michigan does not.
“We need to have some sort of blanket reform here,” said Kristen Staley, deputy director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency. “This is a big fight, but it has to happen.”
Some prisons have tried to reduce the use of solitary, said Staley. But that patchwork change is slow and that makes it ineffective.
Confinement is used for inmates who might be a danger to themselves, prison staff or other inmates, she said, and in Michigan, it can be used for prolonged periods .
Officials in Cheboygan County said they put young people under age 18 in segregation for any disciplinary infraction, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
But solitary confinement has been proven to hamper inmates’ abilities to transition back into ordinary life and the general prison population, Staley said, and can hurt both the family and the inmate by not allowing contact while in confinement.
In 2006, Timothy Souders, then 21, died of dehydration and heat exhaustion after almost four days shackled to a concrete slab in a Jackson prison during an August heat wave. The state settled the resulting lawsuit for $3.25 million in 2008, but didn’t implement new laws for confinement.
Instead, the Department of Corrections asked superintendents to come up with ideas to reduce its use of solitary confinement. That placed the burden of reform on individual prisons.
The Alger Correctional Facility near Marquette in the Upper Peninsula took up the challenge. It provides incentives for good behavior, such as more recreation time, a phone call or items from the prison store for inmates in solitary confinement
It is designed to help inmates return quicker to the general prison population. “Incentives in Segregation” has been so successful the prison has closed an entire wing of solitary confinement cells, said Maurice Chammah, who works with the Marshall Project, a national criminal justice watchdog group.
Through writing essays about their experiences and good behavior, prisoners go from one stage to another, receiving a new perk at each stage until they can be cycled back into the general population of the prison.
Even with programs like Alger’s, and a steady decrease in inmates in confinement since 2007 from 1,314 to 779, Michigan lags behind other states with more rigorous rules for who can be put into solitary confinement and for how long, Staley said.
Last month, New Jersey lawmakers voted to stop putting inmates in confinement for as long as 23 hours a day for months or years on end, concluding it is abusive and hurts the potential for a return to society.
If the New Jersey bill is signed, juvenile, pregnant, elderly, mentally ill, gay and transgender inmates will no longer be put in solitary confinement in state prisons and local jails because isolation could be particularly harmful to them, according to the bill.
California has moved about 2,500 prisoners from solitary confinement following a 2009 lawsuit waged by inmates who went on a hunger strike. Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation to end confinement for juveniles there.
North Carolina correctional officials have also announced they will no longer put juveniles inmates in solitary confinement.
And in July f 2015, President Barack Obama made it illegal to place juveniles in solitary confinement in federal prisons.
In Michigan, any inmate can be put in confinement for any period and allowed to leave their cell for only one hour a day. Inmates in confinement are not allowed to make phone calls or visit with friends and family.
Michigan’s policies exacerbate mental health issues, Staley said. They can lead to more violent inmates and more trauma.
The daily average number of inmates in solitary confinement with a serious mental health issue has increased from 56 in 2007 to 77 in 2015, according to the Department of Corrections. The department does not keep statistics on juveniles in solitary confinement.
While solitary confinement is generally considered to be far worse than being in the general population at a prison, corrections officials say it is not much worse than what inmates experience in the general population.
“People think of what they see in TV and think of some terrible place but it’s literally quieter than a public library,” said Chris Gautz, public information officer for the department .. “Prisoners start treating officers with respect and that spreads to the whole facility.”
It is hard for prisons to implement the same programs as the one at Alger, Gautz said, because it requires a staff willing to think outside of the box.
That’s why the department needsh a way to regulate the use of confinement on a statewide level, Staley said.
“We can’t rely on each prison to come up with a program like Alger’s,” she said. “The state needs to step in to help its prison population, especially those most vulnerable to mental issues.”
By RAY WILBUR