In Minnesota prisons last year, black and Native American people went to solitary confinement at disproportionately higher rates than whites. And despite the state's work to curb the use of solitary, some prisoners are still spending more than a year in isolation.
These revelations come from a first-of-its-kind report from the Department of Corrections to the Minnesota Legislature, a requirement of a new law designed to reform and bring more transparency to how the state punishes prisoners with long-term isolation.
"There are things in the report that I have concerns about," said Paul Schnell, who took over as commissioner of corrections last year and has been an advocate for reforms. "We still have some people who are in segregation for a long time."
Schnell said he plans to speak with prison staff in charge of discipline and investigate whether racial profiling or a deeper systematic problem may be driving the racial disparities.
"I think we have an obligation to look at those things," he said.
According to the report:
• In fiscal 2019, prison officials issued 10,751 sentences to solitary confinement. That includes about 5,800 distinct inmates — or, for context, about 60% of the total prison population in Minnesota as of last July. The majority were punitive sentences, though some go to solitary for reasons such as protection from fellow inmates.
• Of those, 45% of admissions were for black people, 13% Native American and 40% white. By comparison, as of July 2019, 40% of prisoners were black, 9% Native American and 51% white. These numbers all reflect a stark disparity from Minnesota's roughly 84% white population.
• 181 people spent longer than three months in isolation; 69 served longer than six months and 20 served longer than a year.
• 54 people were transferred from solitary straight to the mental health unit at the maximum-security prison in Oak Park Heights.
• The most common infractions leading to solitary were disorderly conduct, fighting, abuse/harassment and disobeying a direct order.
The punishment of solitary confinement has come under scrutiny in Minnesota in recent years, as a growing body of research shows it can take an irreversible toll on mental health and make it more difficult for a person to rehabilitate and transition back into society. One damning assessment of isolation came in 2011, when a special investigator for the United Nations denounced it as a degrading punishment, declaring that any stay in excess of 15 days can amount to torture.
Last year, 2,753 sentences to solitary lasted 16 days or longer, according to the new report.
The Star Tribune published a four-part investigation into Minnesota's solitary practices in December 2016, finding inmates regularly spent long periods in isolation, sometimes for minor infractions and with no regard for mental illness. In some cases, what was supposed to be a short stint turned into years in the state's harshest solitary unit, called the Administrative Control Unit, or the "hole within the hole." One man spent a decade in solitary, and his medical records showed his descent into a psychosis, resulting in him spreading feces around his cell.
The bipartisan legislation that passed in 2019 marks the first law governing how Minnesota prisons can use segregation and was a victory for mental health advocates. Under the law, prisoners sentenced to segregation who exhibit signs of mental illness go through psychological screening to determine if isolation is an appropriate punishment. Inmates receive daily wellness checks and can earn privileges, including the ability to transition back to the general population more quickly through good behavior.
The commissioner of corrections is also tasked with reviewing solitary stays lasting more than four months and is to be alerted every time someone is in segregation for more than 30 days. Minnesota prisoners are also no longer permitted to complete their sentences in segregation, previously a common practice.
Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the data raises some concerns about how solitary is still being used, but the existence of the report itself is a positive step.
"You can't fix what you don't measure," she said. "I'm really glad they put this out there, and clearly it's something they're going to have to work on."
In addition to racial disparities, Abderholden said she worried that the prisons were sending young people to solitary confinement, which could cause brain development issues. "The brain doesn't finish forming until 24, 25, 26, so we want to monitor that more closely," she said.
According to the report, prison officials issued 530 solitary sentences to inmates who were 17 to 20 years old, and about 2,400 to people 21 to 26 years old. About 80% of admissions were 21 to 35 years old.
Schnell said the Department of Corrections will release another report later this year that will show the effectiveness of a new step-down program, which rewards prisoners in solitary for good behavior.
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036
Jeff Hargarten • 612-673-4642