Minnesota lawmakers plan to vote on what would be the state's first law governing the use of solitary confinement in prisons, limiting the use of a harsh punishment and providing better mental health care for those in isolation.
The bill comes after a three-year effort to create more humane disciplinary practices in state prisons — particularly for those experiencing severe psychological illnesses — led by Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, in response to a 2016 Star Tribune investigation.
Zerwas said the bill's language has been approved by leadership in both the House and Senate, along with Gov. Tim Walz, in private meetings.
"It's a huge relief," said Sharon Rolenc, who became an advocate for reform when her son, Keegan Rolenc, spent a year in the state's harshest solitary environment. "Hopefully other inmates won't go through what my son went through — that other families won't go through what we went through."
Under the proposal, prisoners sentenced to segregation who are exhibiting signs of mental illness will go through psychological screening, which will determine if isolation is an appropriate course of punishment. Once in solitary, inmates will receive daily wellness checks. They will be able to earn back privileges — including the ability to transition back to the general population more quickly — through good behavior.
The commissioner of corrections will review solitary stays lasting more than four months and will be notified every time someone is in segregation for more than 30 days.
Minnesota prisoners also will no longer complete their sentences in segregation — a practice that sends people onto the streets directly after spending weeks, months or even years alone in an 8 ½- by 11-foot cell for 23 hours a day.
Mental health advocates celebrated the news Wednesday, including Sue Abderholden, executive director of the state's National Alliance on Mental Illness, who has lobbied for the bill along with her staff since the 2017 legislative session.
"People say, 'You can't change the system in the prisons.' But we can," Abderholden said.
Zerwas also said he was relieved to see the bill advance after its third year in play at the Legislature. He said the new regulations will meaningfully reform the state's prisons, including making corrections officials accountable for reporting data on age, race and lengths of stay for each inmate spending time in solitary every year.
"After years of work, when you're able to make a huge public policy impact, it makes this place worth it," said Zerwas. "It makes things better."
Three years in the making
In 2016, the Star Tribune published a four-part series examining solitary confinement in Minnesota, finding inmates regularly spent long periods in isolation, sometimes for minor infractions and with no regard for mental illness.
Anthony Nasseff was supposed to spend 45 days in segregation for "disorderly conduct" but continued to rack up more discipline in solitary, until 45 days turned into 1,200.
Israel Musawwir spent more than nine years in segregation despite a diagnosis of schizophrenia, even after his doctors documented a decline into psychosis due to the extreme isolation.
In a six-year period, about 700 inmates went directly from solitary confinement to the streets. Many of those, unable to integrate back into society, ended up returning to prison or to an inpatient mental health facility.
Over a 10-year period examined by the Star Tribune, more than 1,600 inmates in Minnesota were held in such isolation for at least six months; 437 endured stays of a year or longer. A special investigator for the United Nations has declared more than 15 days in isolation can amount to mental torture.
"I remember just kind of being in shock that, as one of the legislators who had the responsibility to oversee the Department of Corrections, that we had no insight that this was occurring," said Zerwas in an interview Wednesday.
After the series was published, Zerwas and other Minnesota politicians, including then-Gov. Mark Dayton, called for reforms to the state's solitary system. After Zerwas first introduced a bill in 2016, it passed the House but died in final negotiations. It failed again in 2017.
The debate shifted behind the scenes this year when Gov. Tim Walz appointed Paul Schnell as commissioner of the Department of Corrections, according to Zerwas and Abderholden. They began talks with Schnell to hash out precise language that would balance prison safety with civil liberties.
This week, as the Legislature failed to strike a deal before the end of the session, it appeared the solitary bill might once again stall in last-minute negotiations. Zerwas said he got word the language had been revived in final talks.
Keegan Rolenc, who left solitary 2 ½ years ago and has since been working toward a real estate license, said he's glad to see the Legislature acknowledging the detriment of long-term solitary. "There's more they need to do, most definitely," he said. "But it's a start."