Whether or not Minnesota lawmakers reform the state’s solitary confinement policies this year could come down to the price tag.

After meeting with corrections officials, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, along with mental health advocates, introduced a scaled-back version of a measure Tuesday to restrict the use of solitary in the state’s prisons. If passed, the proposal would create the first laws in Minnesota directly addressing the controversial punishment, officially called “restrictive housing,” including limiting who can go to solitary and for how long.

The cost of the revised proposal is still being calculated, but the original would have required the Department of Corrections to hire more than 100 new positions — including security and behavioral health staff — at a projected cost of nearly $22 million over the next two years, according a fiscal analysis.

Based on the revisions, that cost will be “significantly lower,” said Zerwas. In a spirited plea for his fellow legislators to take action, Zerwas emphasized the potentially devastating psychological toll of long-term isolation — particularly for inmates with mental illnesses.

“If someone had chronic hypertension, if someone had cancer, if someone had diabetes, or any other medical condition … we wouldn’t put them in the equivalent of a bathroom for 300, 400, 500 or 600 days,” Zerwas told legislators in the House Public Safety Committee. “We just wouldn’t do that to people.”

The clearest path for the bill would be for Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, to include the new language in his public safety omnibus bill. But Cornish expressed concern over the cost at Tuesday’s hearing, and in a later interview he said he had reservations about “going this far in one swoop.”

“This would be a huge change to our segregation policy,” he said.

Cornish said he will probably decide in the next three weeks whether to include the language in his measure.

Practice dates back to 1800s

Inmates generally land in solitary confinement for unruly or dangerous behavior inside prison, a practice that has been used in the country dating back to the 1800s.

The use of solitary confinement has gained new scrutiny in Minnesota and around the country in recent years, with critics saying that prolonged isolation of prisoners violates their Eighth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment.

In December, the Star Tribune published a series examining solitary confinement in Minnesota, which found prison officials sent more than 17,500 inmates to solitary confinement over the past decade, even as other states have moved away from the practice. Of those, 1,600 inmates spent six months or longer in isolation over the past decade; more than 400 served one year or longer. Many live with mental illnesses that are exacerbated in isolation, meaning they come out in worse condition than when they enter.

Some new language

Under Zerwas’ bill, prisoners diagnosed with a “serious mental illness” would be diverted from solitary confinement. A nurse would be required to check on these prisoners every 24 hours and report any concerns to a mental health professional.

The bill would 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.

It would also ensure inmates get out of solitary at least 30 days before they are released from prison to avoid inmates going straight from long-term isolation back to communities without adequate transition. And every year, corrections officials would have to create a report detailing solitary use.

In the original bill, inmates could only go into isolation for committing a violent infraction. The new language adds escape attempts and “major rule violations” — including terroristic threats, extortion, smuggling and hostage taking — to the list of solitary-punishable offenses. The new version also calls for at least one hour of out-of-cell time every day, down from three hours in the original bill. Inmates would have to be screened for mental illnesses within one day of being in solitary — not before going to isolation, as in the previous bill.

Zerwas told his fellow legislators that the proposal is not intended to end solitary confinement when it’s needed. Rather, he hopes to create more transparency and oversight, he said.

“The fact that we have people that are being put in isolation for up to two years or longer and there’s nowhere in state statute that ever gives them the authority to do it — that is wrong,” he said. “That is just wrong.”