Wisconsin has made a “culture shift” in its use of solitary confinement in prisons, eliminating it as punishment for minor rule infractions and cutting the time inmates spend in isolation for more serious offenses, Department of Corrections officials say.
In most cases, the state prison system will no longer discipline inmates for self-harm or suicide attempts by sentencing them to time in solitary confinement. And mitigating factors such as mental illness will be considered in meting out punishment, two top DOC officials said in an interview granted as part of a legal settlement with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
The changes in so-called restrictive status housing at DOC come as powerful voices ranging from Democratic President Barack Obama to conservative billionaire Charles Koch are calling for less incarceration and more rehabilitation.
Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is seeking the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, has, for most of his political career, gone in the opposite direction, sponsoring tough-on-crime measures such as the “truth-in-sentencing” law enacted in 1999, refusing to issue pardons, ending an early-release program and severely curtailing parole.
But on this topic — reducing the use of solitary confinement — Walker told the Center in December he was supportive of Corrections Secretary Edward Wall’s push to rethink its use in Wisconsin prisons. His spokeswoman declined this month to say whether Walker backs the new policies.
Solitary confinement in Wisconsin involves placing inmates in small concrete cells with little natural light and minimal human contact for nearly 24 hours a day. Food is passed through a slot in a solid door.
Prisoners are generally allowed few possessions in solitary confinement. In some instances, inmates can be left for hours or days with no bedding, except for a mattress, or with no clothes, except perhaps a paper gown. Any movement outside of the cell is done in shackles. Inmates also can be strip searched.
Dr. Kevin Kallas, DOC’s director of mental health, told the Center the agency intends to “change our attitudes and our culture about restrictive housing, how we use it and who we use it for.”
“We want to make the experience to be as constructive, instructive, rehabilitative as possible, and obviously that’s a work in progress,” Kallas said.
In addition, correctional officers are now being rotated through restrictive housing units after 14 weeks to reduce staff burnout, said Cathy Jess, administrator of the Division of Adult Institutions.
Advocates said the move could lead to fewer allegations of abuse such as those documented last year by a Center investigation of Waupun Correctional Institution’s solitary confinement unit.
That investigation found 40 alleged incidents of serious physical or psychological abuse of inmates by staff in the solitary confinement unit, formerly known as the segregation unit.
The Rev. Jerry Hancock of Wisdom, the faith-based group that has been pushing to end solitary confinement in Wisconsin prisons, said the organization’s three-year campaign and years of legal challenges by state prisoners appear to be paying off.
Kallas said under the old policy, a prisoner could be isolated for up to 360 days for many offenses. They included such infractions as assault, lying about employees and possession of tobacco. The new policy states that restrictive housing is to be used only for offenses that “create a serious threat to life, property, staff, or other inmates, or to the security or orderly operation of the institution.”
The new rules set a maximum initial term of 90 days for the most serious offenses, including aggravated assault on staff or hostage-taking. The sentence can be adjusted downward for mitigating factors, such as mental illness, or upward for aggravating factors, such as whether an inmate is a serial violator. All sentences of 120 days or more must be reviewed by the DOC secretary.
“As a department ... we have continued to make changes and we will continue to make changes,” Jess said. “It is somewhat of, I would say, a culture shift for staff.”
The Rev. Kate Edwards, an ordained Buddhist chaplain who volunteers in the state prisons and leads Wisdom’s anti-solitary effort, said the changes, if implemented as written, would be “huge.” But she is concerned about the lack of a specified maximum period of confinement for rule violations involving “aggravating” circumstances.
Kallas said inmates will no longer be punished just for harming themselves, unless they are “disruptive or disrespectful or assaultive.”
“We want to take the approach of treating for that behavior rather than disciplining for that behavior,” he said of self-harm.
Officials said DOC had already begun rolling out some of the new policies last year and quickly began to see results: As of June 7, the number of Wisconsin prisoners held in segregated housing had dropped by roughly 22 percent to about 995 prisoners, down from 1,268 prisoners a year earlier.
Asked if the changes had resulted in more security problems in the prisons, Jess said it has been the opposite.
“We are hearing there are less disciplinary reports,” she said.
Edwards noted some infractions that in the past landed prisoners in solitary confinement for months may now, under the new policies, be handled with little to no time in isolation.
“I’m very grateful to see that they have made this much progress, but I feel that we still have a pretty long way to go,” Edwards said.
DOC tightlipped on changes
Earlier this year, DOC officials failed to release records related to the policy changes under discussion, prompting the Center to file a lawsuit against the agency in January. Under a settlement reached in June, the department turned over the records, made Jess and Kallas available to explain the changes and paid the $4,500 legal bill for the Center’s attorney, Christa Westerberg.
The new policies, which officially took effect June 1, seek to more closely match the nature and severity of an offender’s conduct with the punishment, Kallas said. For example, minor prisoner misbehavior may be handled by loss of privileges, confinement to a regular cell or loss of recreation rather than solitary confinement.
“We have found just in the last year or so since we’ve started to implement some of these changes that our overall numbers in restrictive housing have gone down and that we’re using more of these alternative dispositions, rather than restrictive housing,” Kallas said.
But Hancock, a former prosecutor who heads the Prison Ministry Project at Madison’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, questioned the DOC’s claim that the number of prisoners in restrictive housing has shrunk. He said corrections officials have repeatedly told Wisdom they do not keep such statistics.
“I don’t know where they’re getting their numbers,” he said.
Jess said DOC has begun tracking how many prisoners are in restrictive housing at any one time but still does not keep statistics on the length of time inmates spend there. According to a survey released by the Association of State Correctional Administrators in 2013, 14 male inmates had been held in solitary in Wisconsin prisons for a decade or more as of the end of 2012.
Lawsuits prompt improvements
Solitary confinement has come under increasing criticism as studies have shown it can cause lasting mental damage and does not improve prison safety. Wisconsin is among at least 10 states that have adopted changes related to solitary confinement in recent years.
Obama in July announced he had ordered the Department of Justice to study the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.
Some prisoners and their advocates say any prolonged use of solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In June, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy essentially invited plaintiffs to bring a case so the high court can decide the question once and for all.
Over the past 12 years, the state has eased conditions for prisoners in solitary confinement, some in response to lawsuits, according to a 2014 DOC report released to the Center as part of its settlement.
Some changes since the early 2000s include providing clocks, dimming lights and improving treatment of mental and physical health. Other changes include allowing recreation items such as puzzles and word searches, replacing frosted glass with clear glass, allowing inmates “to cover their eyes,” providing warmer clothes and equipment for outside recreation and allowing some out-of-cell programming to prisoners in restrictive housing, according to the report.
In 2014, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that at times, the conditions under which John Townsend, a mentally ill Green Bay Correctional Institution inmate, was held in the prison’s restrictive housing unit “did not meet the Eighth Amendment’s standard for the minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities.”
Townsend, who has post-traumatic stress disorder and was suicidal, said he was confined for months in isolation during which “his possessions were limited to a blanket, a smock and a book.” He told the court that for most of his 259 days in solitary, he was not allowed sheets or a pillow, and had to walk nonstop to keep warm in the cold cell. In their decision, the judges wrote, “for a period of weeks (he does not specify how many), Townsend was entirely naked and provided with no clothing, bedding, linen, mattress or shoes.”
The DOC agreed to pay Townsend $26,875 as part of a settlement reached in December in which the agency denied any wrongdoing.
Another lawsuit, brought by inmate Joseph Jiles in 2014, is still pending. He alleges prison officials did not treat him for his mental illness and instead employed increasingly severe disciplinary measures to bring him into line.
Edwards said she remains skeptical of the DOC, but that over the past year she has heard from prisoners who felt correctional officers were less likely to seek harsh punishment for infractions.
In one case, a prisoner she knows well held another inmate down to avoid a fistfight. Both were pepper-sprayed, Edwards said, and videotape backed up her contact’s story.
“In the past, both men would have gotten an automatic 360 for fighting,” Edwards said. “In this case, he was only given 30 days loss of rec, and his comment to me was, ‘They’ve never shown me that kind of love.’ ”
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s reporting on criminal justice issues is supported by a grant from the Vital Projects Fund.