Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity

From: New York Times

CHANGED ATTITUDES Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of
corrections, said he used to believe that difficult inmates should be locked
down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible. “That was the culture,
and I was part of it,” he said.

Published: March 10, 2012

PARCHMAN, Miss. — The heat was suffocating, and the inmates locked alone in
cells in Unit 32, the state’s super-maximum-security prison, wiped away
sweat as they lay on concrete slab beds.

Josh Anderson for The New York Times

One of the 12-foot-by-7 ½-foot solitary cells in Unit 32 of the Mississippi
State Penitentiary.

Kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours each day, allowed out only
in shackles and escorted by guards, they were restless and angry — made more
so by the excrement-smeared walls, the insects, the filthy food trays and
the mentally ill inmates who screamed in the night, conditions that a judge
had already ruled unacceptable.

So it was not really surprising when violence erupted in 2007: an inmate
stabbed to death with a homemade spear that May; in June, a suicide; in July
another stabbing; in August, a prisoner killed by a member of a rival gang.

What was surprising was what happened next. Instead of tightening
restrictions further, prison officials loosened them.

They allowed most inmates out of their cells for hours each day. They built
a basketball court and a group dining area. They put rehabilitation programs
in place and let prisoners work their way to greater privileges.
In response, the inmates became better behaved. Violence went down. The
number of prisoners in isolation dropped to about 300 from more than 1,000.
So many inmates were moved into the general population of other prisons that
Unit 32 was closed in 2010, saving the state more than $5 million.
The transformation of the Mississippi prison has become a focal point for a
growing number of states that are rethinking the use of long-term isolation
and re-evaluating how many inmates really require it, how long they should
be kept there and how best to move them out. Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Ohio
and Washington State have been taking steps to reduce the number of
prisoners in long-term isolation; others have plans to do so. On Friday,
officials in California announced a plan for policy changes that could
result in fewer prisoners being sent to the state’s three
super-maximum-security units.

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades
ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with
prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the
“get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger
numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special
prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types
of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal
justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States
Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades.
More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other
democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.
Humanitarian groups have long argued that solitary confinement has
devastating psychological effects, but a central driver in the recent shift
is economics. Segregation units can be two to three times as costly to build
and, because of their extensive staffing requirements, to operate as
conventional prisons are. They are an expense that many recession-plagued
states can ill afford; Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois announced plans late last
month to close the state’s supermax prison for budgetary reasons.
Some officials have also been persuaded by research suggesting that
isolation is vastly overused and that it does little to reduce overall
prison violence. Inmates kept in such conditions, most of whom will
eventually be released, may be more dangerous when they emerge, studies

Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, said he
found his own views changing as he fought an American Civil Liberties Union
lawsuit over conditions in the prison, which one former inmate described as
“hell, an insane asylum.”

Mr. Epps said he started out believing that difficult inmates should be
locked down as tightly as possible, for as long as possible.
“That was the culture, and I was part of it,” he said.
By the end of the process, he saw things differently and ordered the changes

“If you treat people like animals, that’s exactly the way they’ll behave,”
he now says.

A Very Costly Experiment
James F. Austin held up the file of an inmate in Unit 32 and posed a
question to the staff members gathered in a conference room at the
Mississippi Department of Corrections headquarters in Jackson.
“O.K., does this guy really need to be there?” he asked.

It was June 2007, and the department was under pressure to make
court-ordered improvements to conditions at Unit 32, where violence was
brewing. Dr. Austin, a prison consultant, had been called in by the state.
As the discussion proceeded, the staff members were startled to discover
that many inmates in Unit 32 had been sent there not because they were
highly dangerous, but because they were a nuisance — they had disobeyed
orders, had walked away from a minimum-security program or were low-level
gang members with no history of causing trouble while incarcerated.

Scott Shane contributed reporting from Washington.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 18, 2012

An article last Sunday about states that are rethinking the use of long-term solitary confinement misidentified the office held by Christopher B. Epps, Mississippi’s commissioner of corrections, in the American Correctional Association. He is president-elect, not president. (Daron Hall is the current president; Mr. Epps takes over in 2013.)