A bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed this week to overhaul Minnesota’s use of solitary confinement in prisons, including prohibiting the controversial punishment for nonviolent inmates, mandating more legislative oversight and banning it outright for those with severe mental illnesses.

Minnesota currently has no laws directly addressing the use of solitary, known formally as “restrictive housing.” If successful, the proposals would mean a significant departure from how the state’s correctional facilities have used the punishment over the past decade and, according to proponents, bring Minnesota more in line with reforms happening around the nation.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, who authored the bill in the House, said he was troubled to learn in a Star Tribune report that inmates with mental illnesses were routinely being sent to long-term isolation, a practice that can cause devastating psychological effects. He’s since been working with mental health advocates and corrections officials to come up with policy changes that better serve the well-being of prisoners.

“This needs to be a call to action for legislators to take this seriously and try to find solutions for this,” Zerwas said. “We should not be punishing someone for having difficulties with mental health, and we should not be segregating people because of that.”

Sue Abderholden, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Minnesota, said she helped draft the bill’s language based on the immense body of scientific research showing the negative psychological effects of the punishment. “We tried to take the best of what’s out there in terms of other states and what the research tells us,” she said, “and really make sure that Minnesota’s not the last state to take action on this issue.”

Mental health, transition

In December, the Star Tribune published a four-part series examining solitary practices in Minnesota. Over the past decade, more than 1,600 inmates have spent six months or more in isolation; 413 served one year or longer.

Minnesota prisons routinely send mentally ill inmates to solitary, and some of these prisoners have deteriorated in isolation and continued to misbehave, which in turn led to even more segregation time.

One inmate spent nine years in solitary, even with a preexisting diagnosis of schizophrenia. His doctors noted he experienced psychosis after so much time in isolation. Medical records show he was “logical” and “well-groomed” when he arrived, and after years in segregation he began smearing his feces on the walls of his cell and regularly fighting prison staff.

Another mentally ill inmate went to solitary for what began as a six-week stint; he fared poorly mentally in the isolated conditions, threatened staff and attempted suicide multiple times. By the time he got out, his 45-day stay had transformed into more than three years.

“We need to do a better job of monitoring people who are in segregation,” Zerwas said, “and making sure that this isn’t something that’s making someone’s condition or battle with mental illness worse.”

Republican Reps. Zerwas, Marion O’Neill, Jeff Howe and DFL Rep. John Considine Jr. are listed as bill authors in the House; Republican Dan Hall of Burnsville is the sole Senate author. Under the proposal, prisoners diagnosed with a “serious mental illness” would be diverted from solitary confinement and into secure treatment. A nurse would be required to check on these prisoners every 24 hours and report any concerns to a mental health professional, who may send them out of isolation and into proper care.

Inmates could only go to solitary for a prison rule violation involving a weapon or “infliction of bodily harm,” and they would get at least three hours out of their cells per day. Right now, nonviolent misbehavior such as disobeying an order frequently lands prisoners in solitary. Inmates in isolation are supposed to get out of their cells for one hour every day, but due to staffing shortages, prison officials acknowledge that does not always happen.

The bill would also mandate that a prison warden review the status of inmates in solitary for 15 days — the time frame after which a United Nations investigator says torture can occur — and every 15 days afterward. If a prisoner’s punishment lasts 60 days, the commissioner of corrections must personally review the case.

From solitary to streets

In addition, the bill authors want to stop prisons from releasing inmates directly from solitary confinement to the streets, which frequently happens when prisoners go into isolation toward the end of their sentences. Over a six-year period, 700 prisoners were released from solitary — in many cases, after months without meaningful human contact, and sometimes lacking standard transitional services — according to DOC data analyzed by the Star Tribune. Under the bill, offenders would need to go back to the prison’s general population for at least 30 days and undergo a mental health assessment and appropriate treatment before release.

In addition, it would require DOC to present an annual report about solitary use to lawmakers and mandate that prisons implement an incentive system that allows inmates to get out of solitary faster with good behavior.

DOC officials said they have already been working on reevaluating solitary policies, and in September they took steps to limit time spent in isolation and create a “step-down” program to help inmates work their way out. In mid-December, the department announced it was partnering with New York-based Vera Institute for Justice to help implement best practices and reduce solitary use. Gov. Mark Dayton is also asking for about $7 million to help reform isolation practices and expand mental health care for inmates.

DOC spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald said prison officials appreciate legislators’ “recognition of this important issue” and are reviewing the bills.