Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Oct. 5, 6 or 7
Now imagine STAYING there.
For more than a YEAR.
That’s how long some 30 percent of Illinois inmates are in solitary confinement, concedes the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).
Another 10 percent suffers such isolation for more than a DECADE.
The United Nations considers solitary confinement of 15 DAYS or longer torture.
This summer, a federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of current and former inmates, accusing IDOC of inappropriately using solitary confinement, which can profoundly hurt prisoners. The class-action suit said the practice in Illinois is “cruel, inhumane [and] offensive to basic human decency.”
Alan Mills, director of Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC), which filed the suit with the Chicago law firm of Winston & Strawn, said, “I don’t know anybody who spent more than a few months in solitary who doesn’t come out quite damaged.
“Those who have been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement are often too traumatized to work and must collect Social Security income,” he said.
Former prisoner Brian Nelson in a press conference with UPLC representatives explained some effects of his 23 years in solitary confinement.
“I paced 18 hours every day and they had to cut blood blisters off my feet,” Nelson said. “Consider an animal in the zoo; we don’t put them in an environment like that.”
Nelson told reporters that after his release he needed prescription medicines and psychological therapy, and has difficulty with daily routine such as riding public transportation.
People who’ve been in solitary “have a little closet somewhere,” Nelson said. “I got a place in the basement I can go hide.”
UPLC said about 2,300 inmates in Illinois’ 25 adult correctional centers – including about 15 percent of those housed in maximum-security prisons – are kept in solitary confinement, sometimes for months at a time and often for minor offenses such as “unauthorized movement” and “insolence,” according to data from the Vera Institute of Justice.
Solitary confinement – imposed in Illinois for behavior ranging from “rolling one’s eyes at a guard or in retaliation for helping other prisoners assert their legal rights,” UPLC said – is defined as 22 to 24 hours of isolation a day, and the practice can continue indefinitely.
“Illinois puts too many people into solitary, and for petty reasons,” UPLC’s Mills said. “The conditions there are appalling and unconstitutional, and we leave people in there for too long. Worst of all, Illinois’ excessive use of solitary doesn’t make our prisons safer, doesn’t protect staff, and does nothing to protect the public.”
The suit aims to get IDOC to implement the American Bar Association’s standards on segregation, which say it should be used only for inmates who present “a continuing and serious threat to the security of others, limit how long individuals are kept in solitary confinement, and recommend that people with mental conditions not be subjected to it.
IDOC wouldn’t comment on the case, but after an inmate hunger strike at the Menard Correctional Center last year, a Corrections spokesman said that the state’s prison system does not practice solitary confinement but “administrative detention” that permits some time for exercise, phone calls and visitations.
The National Institute of Corrections reports that Illinois imprisons more than 48,000 people, and that IDOC operates on a budget of about $1.3 billion, with about 10,000 employees.
If “Crime and Punishment” author Fyodor Dostoyevsky was accurate in his comment “You can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners,” Illinois may be condemning itself.
[PICTURED: Chart from Vera Institute of Justice.]