ST. PAUL -- Minnesota prisons punished trouble-making inmates with solitary confinement a record 8,281 times last year, according to state Department of Corrections data. And that was before the agency officially reversed course on a policy meant to stem such punishment.

Earlier this summer — just a week after lawmakers passed the state’s first law governing the use of solitary confinement — corrections officials significantly increased how much time inmates can spend in “the hole,” from a maximum of 90 days to 360 days.

The DOC had limited solitary sentences to 90 days in 2016 after its use of the punishment came under scrutiny. The previous maximum was two years.

DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said the most recent change was made in response to safety concerns from corrections officers. After two of their colleagues died in the line of duty last year, staff called for stricter penalties for inmates who assault corrections officers.

“There are people in our staff who don’t feel that we did enough,” Schnell said, referring to the department’s response to a surge in staff assaults and the deaths of corrections officers Joe Gomm and Joe Parise. “There were (inmates) who … could engage in an assault on a staff person and say, ‘I could do 90 days standing on my head.’ ”

“Even when (solitary sentences were capped) at 90 days, we thought that was too long,” said Ben Feist, chief program officer for the ACLU of Minnesota. “Moving up to the potential of 360 days as a sentence … is certainly troubling and it seems inconsistent with the goals of the new law.”

The new segregation model

Every year, thousands of Minnesota inmates are segregated for days, weeks or even months for offenses that range from disorderly conduct to homicide. Twenty-nine percent of the solitary sentences issued last year were for disorderly conduct.

For 23 hours a day, inmates are confined to a small cell that typically has just a bed, a concrete bench, a shower, a sink and a toilet. A tall, narrow window gives them a tight glimpse into the outside world.

Offenders can pass time through reading and exercise. They can also leave their cells for an hour per day to recreate; in most facilities, those who are segregated can recreate together. But not in the solitary wing of the maximum-security prison in Oak Park Heights, where inmates must recreate alone in an empty, concrete room.

Corrections officials say the new maximum for solitary stays, which took effect June 3, will only be given to inmates who commit the most violent offenses.

The DOC now breaks solitary sentences into five levels, said Sharlene Lopez, who manages the agency’s restrictive housing program. They are as follows:

  • Level 1: Up to 30 days in segregation for minor conduct.
  • Level 2: Up to 60 days in segregation for possessing contraband or making threats.
  • Level 3: Up to 90 days in segregation for assaults that may not cause injuries.
  • Level 4: Between 90 and 180 days in segregation for serious assaults that cause bodily harm to an offender or staff.
  • Level 5: Between 270 and 360 days in segregation for major offenses like homicide, an assault that causes significant injury, sexual assault or holding someone hostage.

“We’re taking the most serious offenders and taking them out of the population to allow the population to be more healthy,” Lopez said.

That’s what the DOC did with Edward Muhammad Johnson, the inmate accused of bludgeoning corrections officer Gomm to death at the Stillwater prison last July. He was recently housed in the Oak Park Heights solitary wing, formally known as the Administrative Control Unit, or “ACU.”

Concerns over mental health

While corrections staff and solitary critics both acknowledge the need to contain dangerous offenders, some worry that sending inmates to the hole for longer periods will only make them worse.

Studies have shown that solitary confinement can cause serious psychological trauma, and in some cases make inmates more likely to re-offend. A special investigator for the United Nations said in 2011 that solitary stays exceeding 15 days can amount to mental torture.

Last year, more than 2,800 solitary stints in Minnesota prisons exceeded 15 days, according to DOC data.

Brad Colbert, who manages a law clinic for inmates at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, thinks the use of solitary confinement for punishment should be “severely limited.”

”If you’re going to sentence someone, charge them, take them to District Court and do it the way the criminal charges are intended for everyone in the United States,” Colbert said. “To me, to do that in lieu of criminal charges seems … to be wrong.”

Diane Medchill, the DOC’s associate director of behavioral health, points out that mental health workers keep constant tabs on isolated offenders.

They check in with corrections officers and watch surveillance footage for changes in behavior, Medchill said. A gesture as small as refusing a meal or phone call could be a sign that an inmate’s mental health is deteriorating.

Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, said the recent legislative changes should help protect mentally ill and nonviolent inmates from long-term isolation.

Under the new state law, the corrections commissioner must review lengthy solitary stays and inmates in segregation must receive regular mental health checks. It also states that inmates who are sentenced to segregation must be tested for mental illness, and those who are diagnosed with an acute mental illness must receive an alternative punishment.

“We’re not so worried about the maximum (sentence). We’re worried about how people get in there, how they get out and what kind of access they have to mental health treatment while they’re in there,” Abderholden said. “I really do believe that this commissioner is very committed to making sure that this is used only for the worst offenses.”

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