Imagine living in a room the size of your bathroom for 600 days. The lights never go off, and there are no windows. Day and night are no longer distinct. Tracing cracks in the wall’s plaster becomes the centerpiece of your imagination, and counting the floor tiles your only source of mental stimulation.
This is the reality of some prisoners experiencing solitary confinement in Minnesota, and we are all paying for it.
Minnesota remains in the minority of states without a codified statute to reduce reliance upon this punitive practice. State Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, has led the bipartisan effort to legislate reforms to the confinement system, aiming to reduce in-cell time and improve guidelines for admission to solitary confinement. These provisions are under consideration as part of an omnibus bill to be presented at a House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance committee hearing on Thursday. The discussion will likely be robust, and it should be. The lack of solitary confinement reform is deeply concerning on policy, medical and ethical grounds.
First, solitary confinement is weakly defined in Minnesota state law and drains the corrections system of resources without producing optimal results. One study found that solitary confinement can cost up to three times as much as the general population in state prisons. On top of that, Minnesota state law poorly regulates this expensive system. Illustrating the limitations of current policy, the Star Tribune reported that in 2015 the state prison system released 71 prisoners directly from solitary confinement into the general public without any transition services. It seems unwise that Minnesota Department of Corrections officers would be the sole arbiters of such release decisions.
In addition to these policy challenges, the adverse physical and mental effects of solitary confinement are well-documented. Research reveals that prisoners with mental illness are disproportionately subject to solitary confinement. Additionally, in human and animal studies, solitary confinement was found to exacerbate pre-existing mental illness. When prisoners are subject to the conditions described above, circadian rhythms are distorted, medical conditions are poorly managed and mental health deteriorates.
Furthermore, solitary confinement is widely recognized as unethical. Its demonstrable adverse effects on prisoners and systematic flaws warrant, at minimum, regulation. International human-rights groups and the U.N. have defined extensive solitary confinement (typically defined as more than 30 days) as torture. Responding to ethical concerns, President Barack Obama implemented federal reform limiting the use of solitary confinement in juvenile prisoner populations. Medical and public health professional associations, including the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, have voiced grave concern over the practice.
Still, many critics remain opposed to the codification of solitary confinement regulations mandated by the state. Their central point — that such government involvement in internal policies will hinder the system — is an important one to consider. However, the current system’s flaws highlight a clear need for improved oversight and accountability. Regulation design and execution must be done carefully and with expert input in order to minimize administrative burden. But this is a small price to pay for a more humane criminal-justice system. With bipartisan support and a committed team of corrections experts, we can work together to ensure smooth implementation of regulations.
On Thursday, our legislative representatives will have the chance to lay the foundation for solitary confinement reform in Rep. Tony Cornish’s Public Safety Omnibus Bill, HF896. No doubt, this will be a long process. Important points to integrate into this legislation include strong controls for time limits in confinement, external review of individual solitary confinement cases by an impartial expert (possibly an ombudsman) and concrete requirements for admission to solitary confinement. Moving forward, it is incumbent upon us as Minnesotans to advocate for change. Contact your representatives and ask them to support the inclusion of solitary confinement controls in HF896 on Thursday as a first step in improving solitary confinement practice and policy in our state.
Sara Lederman is pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.