Minnesota's prison system will partner with a national criminal justice reform group in 2017 to reduce its reliance on the controversial practice of solitary confinement as a punishment for problem inmates.

New York-based Vera Institute for Justice announced Monday it has selected the Minnesota Department of Corrections to take part in its 21-month initiative, with the goal to work with prison administrators to find and help implement alternatives to long-term isolation — a practice that can take a severe mental health toll on prisoners — without sacrificing facility safety.

"Solitary confinement is used widely in U.S. prisons and jails," reads a news release from Vera. "But research has documented for decades its harmful impacts on the mental and physical health of those in isolation — nearly all of whom will eventually return to their communities — as well as emerging concerns about the potentially harmful effects on staff who work in these environments."

Earlier this month, the Star Tribune published a four-part series examining the state's use of solitary confinement, which found more than 1,600 inmates spent six months or more in isolation over the past decade; 413 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, and 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.

In the past six years alone, nearly 700 inmates left prison directly from isolation, often with limited transition services designed to help them succeed on the outside.

Minnesota is among 10 departments to take part in the project. The Bureau of Justice Assistance gave $2.2 million to Vera to help fund the initiative, and participating states will each kick in up to $50,000. To be eligible, corrections departments submitted proposals to Vera earlier this year and a committee vetted applications and interviewed prison administrators.

In their application to Vera, Minnesota prison administrators emphasized wanting to "keep pace with national standards" by finding alternative punishments for mentally ill prisoners and to improve data-collection methods to help measure progress, said Mary McComb, who oversees solitary confinement — officially called "restrictive housing" — for the Minnesota DOC.

"Vera's expertise in the area of restrictive housing will give much value to the work we have already started," DOC Commissioner Tom Roy said in a statement praising Vera's record on reform.

The selection process was competitive and the committee selected recipients based on their reliance of segregation and need for assistance, said Vera project manager Sara Sullivan.

The partnership will look to reduce all solitary in Minnesota prisons, with extra attention on vulnerable populations, including juveniles, females and mentally ill inmates, Sullivan said. Vera's next step will be to begin identifying areas in which Minnesota needs the most work and coming up with viable reforms.

Sullivan said Vera was encouraged to see Minnesota's commitment to reform laid out in the department's proposal.

"They've communicated their commitment to wanting to do this and that they want to be a leader in this reform work, so we're excited to be a part of that and to bring our expertise to Minnesota," she said.