Report cites progress combating use of solitary confinement on inmates with mental illness

The Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Prison Project released an extensive new report, “Locked Up and Locked Down: Segregation of Inmates with Mental Illness,” on September 8, documenting the disproportionate and harmful impacts of the use of solitary confinement on inmates with mental illness, as well as efforts by protection and advocacy agencies around the country to reform such practices.

“Segregation is harmful for all inmates, but it’s particularly harmful for inmates with mental illness who have unique therapeutic needs that are generally unavailable in prisons,” said Anna Guy, AVID attorney and author of the report, in a news release. “In drafting this report, we found that inmates with mental illness from all over the country are routinely placed in the most restrictive forms of segregated housing where they receive even less mental health care and are treated even more harshly than other inmates in segregation for serious rules violations, resulting in increased punishment solely on the basis of their disability.”

On any given day, 80,000 to 100,000 people are held in solitary confinement in the nation’s prisons. These inmates are held in isolation for 22 to 24 hours per day, in small – typically six by eight foot – cells, segregated from essential programs, activities, and treatments, including mental health treatment.

Many of those isolated in solitary confinement are placed there as a result of behaviors associated with a mental illness, which experts say are further exacerbated by prolonged isolation. Moreover, advocates argue that solitary confinement is a form of cruel and unusual punishment and may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. To demonstrate this, the report features non-litigation and litigation advocacy examples from over 20 state protection & advocacy agencies challenging the use of solitary confinement.

For example, Arizona Center for Disability Law sued the Arizona Department of Corrections to implement minimum hours per week of out-of-cell time and restrictions on length of stay. In Illinois, Equip for Equality successfully advocated for the construction of a separate psychiatric hospital for inmates and the overhaul of the Illinois Department of Corrections’ disciplinary procedures. Disability Rights Oregon signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Oregon Department of Corrections requiring an average of 20 hours per week of out-of-cell time, including 10 hours of both structured and unstructured programming each week for inmates with mental illness in segregation.

Major cases are pending against state departments of corrections in Florida, Colorado, and Montana, among other states.

“People with disabilities are disproportionately placed in solitary confinement. Communities across the nation are struggling with the negative consequences of isolating prisoners in this way,” National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) Executive Director Curt Decker said in a news release. “This report demonstrates the critical need to increase federal funding for P&As to conduct more monitoring and advocacy in prisons so that when individuals return to their communities they are prepared to be successful.”

AVID’s recommendations for further reform can be read here.

Disability Rights Washington, the parent organization of the AVID Prison Project and Rooted in Rights, is the designated protection and advocacy agency in Washington, and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.