Gov. Mark Dayton and state corrections officials are at odds over how to implement solitary confinement reform in Minnesota prisons.
The Department of Corrections won’t support the reboot of a bill brought last year that would mandate statewide changes, instead favoring new internal policies, said spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald.
But in a news conference Friday, Dayton said he backs a law change. “Absolutely I would support the reforms,” said Dayton. “I’m not aware of the particulars, but I think it’s brutal. And it may be necessary as an inmate control tool, but it’s got to be used very, very selectively.”
Minnesota is among a minority of states with no laws that address long-term isolation. In 2017, Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, led the charge on a bill that would have limited the length of solitary confinement, banned the practice for mentally ill inmates and instructed prison officials to report yearly data to lawmakers about the practice. It would also have ended the practice of releasing people from prison directly from solitary — an issue Dayton expressed concern about Friday.
“To have people leave from solitary confinement right into society when they’re paroled is just really asking them to make an almost impossible leap back into society,” Dayton said.
A pared-down version of the bill passed the House last year, but failed in final negotiations. Zerwas said the bill still has Republican support in the House, and he’s hopeful to move a measure forward this year that would create checks on how frequently the department uses the punishment of isolation, which the United Nations has labeled torture after 15 days.
“I think this is really an important discussion we continue to have at the Legislature,” said Zerwas. “I’m not here to micromanage how the Department of Corrections operates their solitary confinement or segregation program. What I’m here to ensure is that we have accountability and we have transparency in how it’s being used. And, quite frankly, right now we have neither.”
The push for reform came after a December 2016 Star Tribune investigation on prisoner isolation in Minnesota.
Over 10 years, more than 1,600 inmates spent six months or longer in solitary — officially called “restrictive housing” by corrections — and 413 served one year or longer. Prisons regularly sent mentally ill inmates to solitary in that period, and many deteriorated and continued to act out, which led to even more segregation time. One inmate served more than 10 years, even with a diagnosis of a severe mental illness.
“No one really knew that they were using it this much,” said Sue Abderholden, director of Minnesota’s National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We were all shocked.”
While NAMI worked with Zerwas and other legislators to create new laws addressing solitary, the Department of Corrections partnered with the New York-based Vera Institute for Justice to make internal policy changes.
Corrections workers have since traveled to Colorado to learn from that state’s reforms on isolation, said Fitzgerald. They’ve also implemented recommendations from Vera, including a “step-down” program that allows prisoners to work their way out of solitary with good behavior. According to Fitzgerald, Minnesota prisons saw a 23 percent decrease in segregation sentence days in 2017 compared to 2016.
But as the department continues to make internal changes, it’s not supporting changes in the law, said Fitzgerald, saying the current proposal could restrict the department’s work in progress.
Yet advocates for the bill say simply changing policies within DOC isn’t enough, especially with a gubernatorial election coming in November, meaning the department could get new leadership.
“Policies are decided internally,” said Abderholden. “Whoever the new commissioner will be next January can decide they don’t agree with these policies and stop them. And that’s not what we want … we’ve had a real awakening about what is going on in our prisons, and it’s not OK.”
Abderholden met with DOC officials earlier this year, but they “weren’t very positive,” and later they said they wouldn’t support the bill language, she said.
“I just feel really frustrated by this,” Abderholden said.
Sharon Rolenc, whose son Keegan Rolenc spent a year in solitary, also expressed skepticism that talk about policy will translate to long-term change.
“Given their history, given what Keegan experienced, I have to see it to believe it,” she said.