SUNDAY EDITION | Kentucky jails, prisons taking steps to curb solitary confinement
LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) -- When inmate Holly Snyder allegedly called her boyfriend from Metro Corrections recently, asking him to drop a domestic violence charge against her, a judge took away Snyder’s phone privileges for violating a no contact order.
As a result, Snyder spent the next three weeks in solitary confinement, isolated in a barren, windowless 8-foot-by-12-foot cell for all but one hour a day. The move was indefinite, until an attorney and a judge finally intervened on her behalf.
“To leave her in solitary while this case is pending … is extremely unnecessary, especially in light of the charges,” attorney Sarah Clay said at a June hearing before Jefferson District Court Judge Erica Williams. “I think it is overly harsh.”
Williams agreed, saying she only recently learned that the jail places inmates in segregation when their phone privileges are taken away. The judge called the issue a “problem” that needed to be addressed.
Made famous in prison films and literature, the practice of sending inmates to solitary confinement has been under new scrutiny in recent years. In Kentucky, a 2013 study found that inmates who spent more time in isolation were more likely to re-offend once they had served their time.
Jail and prison officials in Louisville and across Kentucky have taken note, evaluating how they use solitary confinement and what offenses merit such punishment.
Louisville Metro Corrections has been working not only to halt the practice of putting defendants without phone privileges in segregation, but also to reduce the total number of inmates placed in solitary altogether, director Mark Bolton said.
In the last few months, Bolton has cut the number of solitary confinement cells in Metro Corrections by about 40 percent, to 62. He has opened a large wing to house male inmates who lose phone privileges and he has vowed to keep women like Snyder out of solitary confinement when they lose their phone privileges.
Bolton said he has been driven by national research that shows solitary confinement can have negative long-term impacts on an inmate’s physical and mental health. It also is more expensive as those inmates require additional staffing.
“We have to look at (segregation) and how we use it and start tamping this down,” he said in a recent interview.
The Kentucky Department of Corrections has also joined what has become a nationwide push to alter the practice of putting inmates in solitary confinement in its 13 prisons, especially in deciding how long someone stays in segregation.
While acknowledging that some inmates must be separated from the rest, mental health experts and advocates across the country say solitary confinement can be a destructive, brutal and expensive punishment that can cause long-term damage to inmates.
Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner Jim Erwin said Kentucky is “changing our philosophy” in adjusting the time inmates spend in isolation.
“We’re evolving in that process right now,” Erwin said.
In fact, Kentucky has cut the average time inmates stay in solitary confinement from 67 days in 2011 to 29 days last year, a 57 percent decrease state records show.
“I think … we are being progressive in addressing the issues that have been brought up through studies that (show) things need to change,” Erwin said.
Years of isolation
Four years ago in Jefferson County, Bolton said so many inmates were sent to solitary confinement, some had to share the tiny cells.
“I think we over-utilized administrative segregation,” Bolton said. “It was a long-time practice in this department.”
The segregation cells in Kentucky have a metal or concrete bed with a mattress and pillow and blankets. Inmates are allowed to have books and writing material. There is a small toilet and sink. They typically receive their food on trays that are pushed through a slot in the cell's door. The inmates are given one hour out of the cell a day.
Inmates are put in solitary confinement for a variety of infractions: fighting with another inmate, assaulting staff, refusing to follow orders and possession of contraband, among other examples.
And for years Metro Corrections has had to put some male and female inmates in solitary confinement when their phone privileges were taken away simply because there were no other places in the jail to put them where they wouldn’t have access to a phone.
But Bolton said he has now addressed that issue, last week opening a large common area that houses 11 male inmates but has no access to phones. And he said in the more rare occasions when female inmates are ordered on phone restrictions, Bolton will petition the court to get the order lifted and instead try to block the number so they don’t have to go to a solitary confinement cell.
“Hopefully we can prevent this from happening again,” he said of the Snyder case.
On a recent visit to Metro Corrections, WDRB passed by an inmate who had been in solitary confinement for 219 days. The inmate had punched a corrections officer and had been a consistent danger, though Bolton said the staff was trying to “step him down” by slowly giving him more freedom.
He was currently the longest serving inmate in segregation in Metro Corrections, but in Kentucky’s prisons, inmates can remain in solitary confinement for months or even years.
A 2013 audit of Kentucky prisons found 1,125 inmates who had been in solitary confinement for more than a year. The study, conducted by Eastern Kentucky University, also found that the longer an inmate stayed in solitary, the more likely he or she was to commit another infraction once released.
Erwin said the state has worked hard to lessen that number by reducing the penalties for breaking certain jail rules to decrease the time inmates spend in segregation. And what was once a lengthy, cumbersome process to move inmates into and out of segregation has been streamlined, he said.
As a result of those and other changes, the state said the number of inmates currently in solitary confinement for more than a year has dropped significantly.
While the EKU audit found Kentucky prisons were about average with the rest of the nation for the total number of inmates in solitary confinement, it found other issues that needed to be addressed.
For example, Kentucky prisons had no “step-down” programs to transition inmates in solitary confinement back to the general population. The study put a focus on transitioning inmates who had been in solitary for more than a year.
Since the study, Erwin said the state has implemented one step-down program at the Kentucky State Penitentiary, moving eight inmates at a time out of solitary into a larger area where they stay as a group, before transitioning to regular population. Other prisons are working to implement step-down programs, he said.
The study also found there was a significant delay and backlog to get people into and out of segregation.
Erwin said internal changes have been made and the backlog of inmates on a “waiting list” to be sent to solitary confinement or get out has been eliminated.
While the time inmates are spending in solitary has been reduced, the number of inmates in segregation has risen dramatically, from less than 12,000 in 2011 to more than 15,000 in the last fiscal year.
Erwin said eliminating the backlog of inmates waiting to be sent to solitary and having some inmates going back to solitary after being released more quickly has inflated that number.
"It's a positive thing," he said.
Mentally ill inmates "huge challenge"
Still, some defense attorneys and advocates say too many inmates continue to be sent to segregation for minor violations.
And of even more concern, according to the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, which represents inmates who cannot afford an attorney, is the belief that far too many inmates with serious mental illness are being placed in solitary confinement.
Jeff Edwards, director of the department’s protection and advocacy division, said having mentally ill inmates spend 23 hours in solitary for months or years at a time only exacerbates their problems.
“There have been suicides, other deaths that can be contributed to mental illness and those needs are not being met,” he said.
In Jefferson County, there are typically 40 to 50 people in segregation every day at Metro Corrections. Some are violent. Some have broken jail rules. But a large percentage - 80 percent currently - have a mental illness and stay there until they can be medicated and stabilized so they don’t harm themselves or others, Bolton said.
“It is a huge challenge for us,” Bolton said.
Bolton said mentally ill inmates sent to segregation are reviewed after 72 hours to see if they can be given medication.
“We work very, very hard to get people out of administrative segregation and back into general population as quickly as we can,” he said.
While the EKU study praised the access of mental health treatment and assessment at the Kentucky State Reformatory in La Grange, it revealed the state had no way to track how many mentally ill inmates were in segregation.
Following a recommendation of the study, Erwin said the Department of Corrections last week implemented an electronic system that allows mentally ill inmates to be tracked and treated accordingly.
As jail and prison officials alter long-time practices in how solitary confinement is used, they stressed that segregation is still a necessity, both for the safety of inmates and guards.
“You have some inmates that are so non-compliant, that are so aggressive, that are so assaultive ...,” Bolton said. "I'm going to keep my staff safe in this institution."
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