Every so often, you read a story that stops you in your tracks. I still remember where I was three and half years ago when I first read the Star Tribune’s four-part series examining solitary confinement practices in Minnesota’s prisons. Star Tribune reporter Andy Mannix had spent hours interviewing inmates and analyzing data from the Minnesota Department of Corrections to better understand how our state prisons were using isolation.

What Mannix found was appalling.

The Star Tribune’s reporting revealed that during the previous decade, more than 1,600 inmates had spent six months or more in isolation with another 413 having served at least one year or longer in solitary confinement.

Even more concerning, the report found that Minnesota prisons had been sending mentally ill inmates to solitary. In one case, an inmate suffering from schizophrenia spent nine years in solitary.

We know that extended isolation in solitary confinement can cause or exacerbate a whole host of psychological and behavioral problems. Inmates and their families deserve transparent accountability measures, guidelines, and defined steps that clearly outline the path out of solitary.

The Star Tribune’s report served as a rallying cry that brought together a bipartisan group of lawmakers, mental health advocates, and the Department of Corrections, all in an effort to find a better way forward. We have focused our efforts on solutions that ensure the safety of our prisons and their staffs while also making sure that practices are not counterproductive and do not cause irreparable psychological damage to inmates.

After three years of bipartisan collaboration at the Legislature, Minnesota will soon have established statutory guidelines for the use of solitary confinement in state prisons, thanks to legislation that was included in the Public Safety and Judiciary budget bill this year.

The legislation establishes in law, for the first time ever, a defined process for the commissioner of corrections to follow when placing an inmate in solitary confinement as well as minimum living conditions required for inmates in solitary.

The commissioner will be required to report to the Legislature on the implementation of the solitary confinement guidelines and annually report data on inmates placed in solitary confinement.

Further, the legislation makes tremendous strides in addressing the mental health issues facing inmates by requiring a mental health assessment before placement in solitary confinement and placement in a secure treatment unit if the screening indicates a serious or acute mental illness.

Oversight is improved by mandating the review of an inmate’s status by the commissioner of corrections every 30 days. If the inmate is in solitary for more than 120 days, the warden must provide the commissioner a behavior management plan for the inmate.

More clearly defined pathways back into the general prison population are provided for inmates by requiring the commissioner to design and implement a system of incentives that reward good behavior.

Once an inmate is placed in solitary, nurses will be required to conduct mental health checks at least once every 24 hours, and transfer an inmate to a mental health treatment unit if there are concerns about an inmate’s mental state.

The work that has been done on this issue is proof positive that good, bipartisan public policy can still be accomplished in St. Paul. I would especially like to thank Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell for his willingness to work with the Legislature on these reforms. Commissioner Schnell has been an incredible partner in this effort from day one.

Solitary confinement has been and will continue to be a necessary tool to manage legitimate safety concerns in our prisons. I must stress that this bill does not, in any way, limit the use of solitary confinement for dangerous inmates.

Ultimately these reforms in the use of solitary confinement will only be successful if they improve the safety of inmates and staff. I am hopeful that these reforms will be a step in the right direction to bring about the change that so many of us are seeking.

 

Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, is a member of the Minnesota House.