Gov. Mark Dayton and several DFL and Republican legislators are expressing alarm about the extremes to which state prison officials are using solitary confinement as punishment on many inmates, and are vowing to push for funding to expand mental health care for prisoners during the coming legislative session.

In an interview at his residence, Dayton said he met last week with Department of Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy in reaction to a Star Tribune investigative series on the state’s extensive use of solitary confinement in prisons, including on mentally ill inmates.

Dayton said he was particularly concerned by the revelation in the Star Tribune report that nearly 700 inmates over the past six years have gone directly from solitary confinement back into society after being released from prison. He said the “shock” of such a move “would be overwhelming” to someone who has been barred from social contact, and it would better serve the public if prisoners were reintroduced to society gradually.

“I think that’s something we really need to look at,” Dayton said, adding, “I don’t know what the answer to that is.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said the state “should immediately start exploring” solitary confinement reform and the toll of long-term isolation on inmates with mental illnesses.

“It is no different medically than someone who’s battling cancer or diabetes or heart disease — except how the symptoms manifest — and we’re treating people battling that illness like animals,” Zerwas said. “And it’s just heartbreaking.”

The four-part series in the Star Tribune documented the heavy use of solitary confinement by Minnesota prisons over the past decade. More than 1,600 inmates spent six months or more in isolation during that time, and 437 served one year or longer. In some cases, inmates went in for a relatively minor infraction and ended up spending months or years confined to an 8 ½-by-11-foot cell for 23 hours or more a day.

Many entered prison with severe mental illnesses and ended up in isolation, where their condition deteriorated. One inmate — who spent nine years in solitary, even with a preexisting schizophrenia diagnosis — spoke of hearing voices and smearing feces on the walls of his cell. Another talked about attempting suicide many times to escape the mental torture brought on by years of solitude.

The federal government and at least 30 states have instituted policy changes in recent years, many to divert mentally ill and juvenile prisoners from solitary. The changes have been based on a growing body of research showing the practice has no rehabilitative value and can have a devastating effect on mental health. Minnesota is among a minority of states with no law specifically addressing the use of solitary.

Dayton said he was troubled that Minnesota is behind other states on the issue. He said that he and DOC will advocate for more funding this legislative session to hire more correctional officers and mental health staff, which could be used to expand services for inmates with mental illness. They pushed for similar funding last year, but legislators didn’t approve the request.

Despite his concerns, Dayton stopped short of saying he would exercise his executive power to make immediate changes, and praised Roy for an “outstanding job.” He said he will continue to rely on the commissioner’s leadership to make positive reforms.

“I’m not qualified to run the prison system in Minnesota,” Dayton said. “My job is to hire the best person I could find, who is willing to take on that responsibility, and rely on them to have the basic human values that I have, which I strongly believe Commissioner Roy possesses.”

‘There’s got to be a balance’

Meanwhile, one of the state’s top mental health organizations is pushing for swift change.

Sue Abderholden, director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), sent a letter to legislators last week announcing a bill that would dramatically curb the use of solitary confinement.

Among other provisions, it calls for ending the practice of releasing inmates from solitary into the community without intensive mental health support, barring the placement of anyone in solitary under the age of 26, and mandating regular review of prisoners who are in solitary more than 15 days — the time frame a United Nations investigator defined as human torture.

The bill also calls for requiring an annual report to the Legislature on the use of solitary.

NAMI is searching for legislators to carry the bill.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who chairs the public safety committee in the House, said he plans to meet with Roy and collect more information on the state’s use of solitary. Cornish, a former law enforcement officer, said he sees a need for solitary as a tool in a volatile prison setting, “but there’s got to be a balance.”

Zerwas, who is also on the House public safety committee, said he believes mental health care in corrections should be a focal point of the 2017 legislative session, and that “we have to do better for Minnesotans.

“From county jails through our prison system, we can’t have a corrections system that punishes and isolates patients with mental illnesses,” he said. “That’s never been the function of criminal justice. ... It won’t bring on positive outcomes.”