Gov. Mark Dayton is asking the Legislature to approve nearly $7 million to reform the state’s practice of solitary confinement, formally called “restrictive housing,” and provide better mental health treatment in Minnesota prisons.

The money, included in Dayton’s 2018-19 budget request, would fund 48 new positions over two years — including security, behavioral health and caseworker staff — to provide more out-of-cell time for prisoners, cognitive treatment and classes designed to reduce rearrest rates.

“Funding is necessary to properly address the mental health needs and civil rights of our offenders, comply with new federal guidelines and accreditation standards, and to improve public, staff and offender safety,” the budget request said.

Dayton said he decided to include solitary funding after reading a December 2016 Star Tribune report on Minnesota’s solitary practices. “It definitely prompted the response that [Department of Corrections] Commissioner [Tom] Roy and I agreed upon in terms of additional resources to better serve the people that are in solitary confinement,” he said.

The four-part Star Tribune series found more than 1,600 inmates spent six months or more in solitary over the past decade. More than 400 served one year or longer. Many came to prison with severe mental illnesses and deteriorated after months or years in solitary.

One prisoner spent nine years in solitary, despite a preexisting schizophrenia diagnosis.

He said he lost all hope of ever returning to the general prison population and began smearing feces on the walls of his cell and throwing it at prison staff. Another said he tried to kill himself several times to escape what ended up being years in solitary.

Human rights advocacy groups like the ACLU are celebrating Dayton’s push for reform as a “step in the right direction toward more humane and effective prisons.”

“It’s definitely good news,” said Ben Feist, legislative director for Minnesota’s ACLU chapter. “I think this increased funding really demonstrates that Governor Dayton really recognizes that solitary confinement is overused and often abused in our prison system, and that new reforms are needed to make sure we follow the use of solitary in prisons and jails.”

Sue Abderholden, president of Minnesota’s National Alliance on Mental Illness — whose group plans to push a bill to limit solitary in Minnesota this legislative session — said she’s still waiting for more details on what type of treatment and how much out-of-cell time DOC will offer under Dayton’s proposal. She pointed out that the majority of hires will be for more security staff — not mental health workers.

“I think there’s still a lot of questions about really what this means,” she said of the proposal.

In an e-mail, Roy said he was “pleased there is recognition of the difficulty that this work entails.” But even with more resources, he said, “there will still be individuals who will require restrictive housing of some nature.”

If approved, about $3.8 million would go toward solitary reform, allocated over 2018 and 2019. The majority of that would bankroll more staffing and allow educational, cognitive skills and mental health programming for the some 2,600 projected to go to isolation every year. As Dayton’s proposal points out, Minnesota prisons don’t now offer classes designed to decrease the chances that troublesome inmates will misbehave in the future. As a result, many end up back in solitary or staying longer than expected.

One mentally ill inmate, Anthony Nasseff, went to solitary for a 45-day stint and ended up getting in more trouble in isolation. By the time he got out, 45 days had turned into 1,200 days.

Dayton also acknowledged that other states have passed similar measures and seen reduced violence rates. “Staff safety will be improved with this proposal, with fewer injuries anticipated,” the budget request said.

One focus will be to reduce the number of inmates who leave prison directly from solitary confinement. The Star Tribune report found that about 700 inmates exited Minnesota prisons directly from isolation over a six-year period, some without basic transition services designed to help them succeed on the outside and after spending months without meaningful human contact.

“It is unthinkable that so many offenders are returning to society directly from restrictive housing, without the mental health services, socialization, or skills training they need to be successful,” Dayton said Thursday, adding that these services would make communities in which inmates settle after prison safer.

Another $3 million would go toward expanding mental health care in prisons, including the “supermax” isolation unit in Oak Park Heights, called the Administrative Control Unit, or ACU. Inmates in the ACU spend 23 — sometimes 24 — hours a day in an enclosed 8½-by-11-foot cell, where they are monitored at all times.

According to Dayton’s proposal, Minnesota prisons have seen a 20 percent increase in offenders with serious and persistent mental illnesses over the past seven years, and 11 percent of prisoners living in solitary confinement have such a diagnosis.

Hiring more staff would allow prisons to expand care in the ACU and 47-bed mental health unit at the Oak Park Heights facility and give the offenders more time out of their cells, the proposal said.

“The offender population has a constitutional right to adequate health care, including mental health services,” it reads. “Treating mental illness benefits offenders and contributes to a safer prison environment.”

 

Staff writer Ricardo Lopez contributed to this report.