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It’s time for a rethink

Monday, Apr 25, 2016

* Solitary confinement may work to hold down incidents in prisons, but what happens when the inmates get out of jail?

Brian Nelson’s years in solitary confinement left him terrified of other people, and he says he can still taste the concrete dust from his cell, even though he’s been free since 2010.

The 51-year-old is afraid to ride the bus, he takes five psychotropic drugs, and sees a psychiatrist every week. Even when he’s at a park surrounded by grass, he says everything starts turning gray, and he remembers how tiny air pockets in the walls kicked up dust whenever he would clean his cell at a now-shuttered maximum security prison in Tamms, near the southern tip of Illinois. He was confined there for the final 12 years of a 26-year sentence for murder and armed robbery.

“Those four walls beat me down so bad,” he told members of an Illinois House committee during a recent emotional hearing on the state’s solitary confinement practices.

Stories like Nelson’s have led Illinois lawmakers to push prisons to restrict the use of solitary confinement, joining a national movement that has policymakers rethinking the longstanding form of punishment that critics say has a profound psychological impact on inmates.

* More

Monica Cosby, who spent 20 years in prison, experienced solitary confinement about 12 years ago when guards discovered lip balm in her pocket.

The typical 15- to 30-day penalty would extend for months due to what Cosby characterized as minor violations such as lying in bed at an angle that leaves a guard unable to see her face. […]

Allen Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, said current solitary confinement practices are unconstitutional, citing a similar case where an inmate who had a piece of candy in a pocket received 30 days in isolation.

Mills spoke of another inmate who was having a seizure and was sentenced to a year of solitary confinement after guards thought she was faking and pushed her against a wall to restrain her.

Mike Atchison, the Department of Corrections’ chief of operations, said that instances like these may be attributed to rogue officers. But if a person commits a serious enough offense, the language in the rules the department follows speaks to the preservation of the safety and security of the facility.

Preserving the “safety and security of the facility” was the same argument used back in the day to justify giving imprisoned gang leaders the power to hand out prison jobs. Back then, prison officials were focused solely on the problems they themselves faced (not blaming them, really, because the problems were and are huge), but didn’t consider the problems they were creating once those prisoners were released. Every now and then, they need to be reminded of this. And it’s happening again.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

30 Comments
  1. - Mama - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:04 pm:

    Prison guards and officials need better training, and training should be done at least twice a year to remind them of the changes they need to make.


  2. - A guy - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:04 pm:

    Solitary is definitely the wrong place for a person who has a chance of getting out some day. Otherwise, the return ticket is virtually guaranteed.


  3. - Ghost - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:12 pm:

    Tamms was only for people who did teally really bad things. AND you can get out of Tamms if you behave yourself and returned to your originating prison. to be at tamms for a long time requires ongoing dangerous behavior.


  4. - Anonymous - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:13 pm:

    There was a very thoughtful show on this done by “Frontline” about 6 months ago.
    Prison is a frightening place to visit and a worse place to live.
    Prison discipline is a very difficult thing to manage under the best of circumstances.


  5. - Rich Miller - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:15 pm:

    ===to be at tamms for a long time requires ongoing dangerous behavior.===

    I remember allegations that some prisoners were sent there for organizing other prisoners for better conditions.


  6. - Ghost - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:16 pm:

    a side problem is massive overcrowding and short staffed. Lots of overtime, gurads working 16 hr shfts, 8 off and back for another 16. if you live 1 hr from the prison tou get 5 hrs of downtime. training is a lessor problem the. just having people on staff.


  7. - Homer J. Quinn - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:18 pm:

    “Mike Atchison, the Department of Corrections’ chief of operations, said that instances like these may be attributed to rogue officers.”

    they tried to blame Abu Ghraib on “bad apples” too.


  8. - pool boy - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:26 pm:

    There is always two sides to every story and every decision has consequences.


  9. - Earnest - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:28 pm:

    >instances like these may be attributed to rogue officers

    A key point for me is: what systems are in place to deal with “rogue officers”? I believe in our conversation about police shootings someone made the point that the problems were confined to a rather small number of officers, but there were systemic issues preventing this from being addressed.


  10. - Rob Roy - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:29 pm:

    It isn’t called solitary it’s called segregation and to all you genesis’s and it is needed. The inmates didn’t follow the rules in society. All they have to do is follow the rules in prison there is no fear of being placed into the segregation. Training for staff…..you are going to get staff hurt with all your BS goody two shoes crap.


  11. - Payback - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:32 pm:

    “…instances like these may be attributed to rogue officers.” Translation: it’s okay, it doesn’t happen that much.

    “…if a person commits a serious enough offense…” So the prison guards are “judges” too.

    “…the rules the department follows speaks to the preservation of the safety and security of the facility.” Translation: the ends always justify the means.

    Amazing how similar the psychological profiles of prison workers and police is. I bet the IDOC “rules” don’t mention the U.S. Constitution once.


  12. - Honeybear - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:33 pm:

    I’ve always thought solitary was cruel and unusual punishment


  13. - Former Hoosier - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:48 pm:

    I was a psychologist at a maximum security prison in Indiana. Inmates are placed in segregation (aka solitary confinement) for a variety of reasons. We housed a Indiana State Trooper who was convicted of murdering his family. He was housed in a special seg unit for his own protection (protective custody). Other inmates were in seg because of violent behavior (attacking officers or other staff, other inmates etc). Segregation is a necessary housing option. It would take an organized effort (between officers and CO’s) to systematically abuse a segregation policy. I’ve not seen that happen.


  14. - Rob Roy - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:50 pm:

    These are not misguided children people, these children will kill you. Segregation is a tool to control bad behavior and when that behavior becomes disruptive and or dangerous it isolates them from everybody else as a means to keep everybody safe, just like when they were sent to prison to keep society safe. Anybody that’s thinks otherwise should step right on up and go to work behind the walls sometime. If you take segregation away you take control away and when you do that you will lose control of the prison’s.


  15. - Anonymous - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 4:01 pm:

    When you’ve worked inside a prison, walked in my shoes and experienced what I have you can then tell me that placing an inmate in solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment.
    What are we suppose to do with an inmate who assaults staff? Assaults another inmate? Throws urine or feces on staff? Sexually assaults another inmate? All of these violent crimes and more occur in Illinois prisons EVERY DAY. I’ve worked for the IDOC for 25 years and have had urine thrown on me and been assaulted plus I’ve seen numerous other incidents where staff were assaulted. Were we just suppose to leave the inmate in general population where his crimes would become more brazen without recourse? What’s next, not punishing citizens for their crimes because prison is too harsh?


  16. - tired of politics - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 4:06 pm:

    Rog Roy is spot on.


  17. - Mama - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 4:22 pm:

    Not everyone in the prison system are killers.

    “Allen Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, said current solitary confinement practices are unconstitutional, citing a similar case where an inmate who had a piece of candy in a pocket received 30 days in isolation.”

    Having candy is punished via solitary confinement? Anonymous, do you think that is the correct punishment?


  18. - Precinct Captain - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 4:48 pm:

    - Rob Roy - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 3:29 pm:

    It’s “genius.” If you can’t spell it, you probably aren’t one.


  19. - Anonymous - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 4:55 pm:

    MOST cases of solitary confinement are not over a piece of candy in a pocket or lying on a bed the wrong way.


  20. - Soccermom - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 5:27 pm:

    Read this. Read all of it.
    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/the-torturing-of-mentally-ill-prisoners


  21. - Oh Andy - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 5:41 pm:

    Allen Mills has made a career of suing IDOC. I feel bad for the inmates and their families that he leads on.
    It would be interesting to see what these individuals were in prison for. That never seems to make the article. Right Mouse?


  22. - Power House Prowler - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 6:34 pm:

    Segregation is a tool to control behavior that is not acceptable to society. I hate to say it but some of the segregation inmates are animals. There are rewards for good behavior to be released from segregation and move back towards general population. What is the definition of solitary in prison? If you can yell to another inmate through an air vent and he can yell back, you have someone to talk to.


  23. - Cassandra - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 7:14 pm:

    First of all, we need to reduce the prison population-a lot.

    Then we can focus on the prisoners who are there in a more professional manner, based on research, not the immediate reactions of the frontline staff, the latter not a highly educated group and regularly faced with complex, demanding situations probably way beyond their training and abilities. I can’t say whether segregation is ever a good idea, I’m not knowledgeable enough, but solitary confinement for more than a very brief period (like, a couple of hours?) sounds like torture to me. Aren’t we Americans the ones who continually preach to the world about torture?


  24. - Tank Watch - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 7:39 pm:

    Want to give DOC a few billion to build some more prisons? Allen Mills bill requires a new home for everyone but our governor won’t spend for the people there now. They are running a bill with no support. It’s for media show and can’t address the issue.


  25. - bull - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 7:43 pm:

    i run a segregation unit in idoc. it is no where near “solitary confinement.” inmates are double celled every chance I get because of space. even if they are alone in a cell, inmates will communicate with the rest of the wing by air vents or their observation windows. they are allowed five hours of “rec time” out of their cell if they wish. many of inmates in “segregation” are also requesting protective custody (solitary confinement). where is the answer? in my career, there has to be rules and consequences for actions for people that did not obey the rules outside of prison.


  26. - Tank Watch - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 7:50 pm:

    Cassandra, No more than a couple of hours? Have you ever been alone for more than a couple of hours? It’s really okay. I’d have to agree with the not very highly educated group on this one.


  27. - Enviro - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 9:35 pm:

    The use of solitary confinement and the high rate of incarceration are issues that need to be addressed in the reform of the U.S. criminal justice system.

    These are very important human rights issues.


  28. - Donald Wareham - Monday, Apr 25, 16 @ 11:03 pm:

    Those of you that think solitary is cruel and unusual punishment have never worked behind the walls. Don’t be conned by the cons.


  29. - @MisterJayEm - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 4:44 am:

    “Those of you that think solitary is cruel and unusual punishment have never worked behind the walls.”

    No matter how many ways this argument is restated it remains an illegitimate argumentum ad hominem. It isn’t an argument at all, rather it is an effort to preclude those who disagree from participating in the discussion.

    Rhetorical posturing may work “behind the walls” but on this site we “genesis’s” expect more logical and rigorous arguments.

    – MrJM


  30. - On my Own - Tuesday, Apr 26, 16 @ 7:48 am:

    I personally am tired of hearing about the poor, mistreated prisoners. As far as I’m concerned, if you’re in for murder, you no longer have ANY rights. My stepson was murdered last year and if someone tried defending the punks who murdered him, I would be furious! They can rot in solitary confinement and it would still be too good for them. Why are we so concerned about how it affects them? Did they think about those things when they committed their crime and took away someone else’s rights?


Sorry, comments for this post are now closed.


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