Bill would end solitary for mentally ill

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  • David Fathi

The ACLU is excited about a bill that was introduced in the state Legislature today that would end solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners. We spoke with David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, on this very subject for our Feb. 3 feature, "Crimes of Punishment."

This quote of Fathi's didn't make it into the story, but seems pertinent now:

... most prisoners with no preexisting mental illness find [solitary confinement] extremely difficult and extremely damaging to their psyche. But prisoners with preexisting serious mental illness, deteriorate, sometimes quite dramatically, sometimes to the point of suicide in long-term isolation. This is something that’s been known for decades. This is not new, and that’s one of the reasons that we are so very concerned about growth of this form of incarceration, is because it has predictably very serious and sometimes lethal effects, particularly for people with pre-existing mental illness. We’ve seen this in case after case that we brought here at the ACLU, challenging Supermax conditions.

The ACLU released a lengthy statement on the bill today:

Solitary Confinement is Not the Answer for Mental Illness
SB 176 Will Lower Costs, Protect Basic Rights and Increase Public Safety, says ACLU

Denver, CO — A bill was introduced in the Colorado State Legislature Monday (Feb. 21) that will end the all-too-common practice of warehousing prisoners with serious mental illness in solitary confinement. The bill would require a mental health evaluation for prisoners before they are placed in solitary and permit such isolation only in extreme situations. It also would support mental and behavioral health alternatives to solitary confinement through cost-saving mechanisms and ensure that prisoners are reintegrated into the general prison population before their community release.

SB 176 introduced by Senator Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora) and Representative Claire Levy (D-Boulder), is a response to the growing number of inmates in Colorado prisons who’ve been diagnosed as mentally ill or developmentally disabled — and the staggering cost of using solitary confinement, rather than mental or behavioral health alternatives, as the default placement without regard to medical needs, institutional security, or prisoner and public safety.

“What we get from continuing the policy of placing prisoners with mental health issues or developmental disabilities in solitary confinement is increased costs for incarceration, increased recidivism rates and reduced public safety,” said Senator Carroll. “Especially in tough economic times, we can do better by using cost-saving mental health evaluation and treatment options rather than budget-busting solitary confinement.”

Currently, 37% of those in solitary confinement are prisoners with mental illness or developmental disabilities — up from 15% just a decade ago. Those confined to solitary in Colorado (more than 1,400 inmates) spend 23 hours a day in isolation, for 16 months on average, at an increased additional cost of from $14,933 to $21,485 per year, per inmate.

“Colorado cannot afford business as usual in its prison system,” said Representative Levy. “We must use science and behavioral health research to get a better result from costly imprisonment. Solitary confinement is the harshest and most expensive option. It should be used sparingly and only with appropriate limitations so prisoners with mental illness don’t become more ill and aren’t made more dangerous.”

Solitary confinement, said Terri Hurst, Director of Public Policy at the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council, is not only costly, it’s dangerous to prisoner health and the public good. “It’s important that offenders with mental health issues be provided treatment services as to not exacerbate their health status. Solitary confinement has been shown to worsen or lead to the onset of mental health disorders and should not be used as an alternative to treatment. Providing treatment services both inside correctional facilities as well as in the community, improves behavioral health outcomes.”

Jessie Ulibarri, Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Colorado, said SB 176 promotes the shared goals of restoring those released from prison to productive roles in society. “By undermining the innate human need for social interaction, solitary confinement works against our goals as a society. Currently 41% of inmates in solitary confinement are released directly from their cell to the street — a dangerous practice — without time to readjust to human interaction while still under supervision. What we want are people ready to fully integrate back into their communities; not people who are released from solitary confinement and led directly to the prison gate, only destined to return again.”

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