Also called the Restrictive Housing Act, H5740 would greatly restrict the use of solitary confinement in Rhode Island’s prison facilities. The bill specifies that people held in disciplinary confinement should receive a minimum of two hours out of cell time, and can only be held for a maximum of 15 days, a practice that is in line with the United Nation’s Nelson Mandela rules. Additionally, the Department of Corrections would not be able to hold members of vulnerable populations – those who are 21 years or younger, 55 years or older, are deaf or blind, have severe and persistent mental illness, developmental disabilities and/or medical conditions – in extended solitary confinement under the legislation. For incarcerated individuals in administrative confinement, the bill would require four hours of out of cell time each day and a housing status reviewal every week for the first two months.
The Rhode Island Department of Corrections (RIDOC) is currently involved in two federal class actions around solitary confinement, demonstrating that the state’s prison system is long overdue for significant reforms. One suit, Liberty v. RIDOC, alleges that the use of solitary confinement, particularly for individuals with disabilities and mental illness, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The other, Morris v. Travisono / Paiva v. RIDOC, concerns a consent decree from the 70s that limits disciplinary confinement to a maximum of 30 days for every incarcerated individual.
The Restrictive Housing Act acknowledges that all individuals who are incarcerated in solitary confinement experience adverse effects, regardless of pre-existing conditions. Sarah Martino, Deputy Director at the Center for Health and Justice Transformation, described to legislators that those who have spent time in solitary “have higher post-release mortality rates, particularly from suicide, than those who do not. People who spend time in restrictive housing are 24% more likely to die in their first year of release from incarceration.”
During the hearing, the House Committee heard from 32 people, 30 of whom testified in support of passing the bill, with two representatives from the Department of Corrections testifying in opposition. Numerous formerly incarcerated individuals spoke about the experiences they had while incarcerated in administrative and/or disciplinary confinement, and allies read stories from pen pal letters with people currently behind walls.
“When you’re in the hole [solitary confinement], it’s the bottom of the earth. You are made to feel that you are less than human,” testified Jackie Kennedy, a formerly incarcerated woman told the House Committee. “It’s taken years of therapy for me to be what I consider feeling normal. We as a society have to come up with a better way.”
Brandon Robinson applauded the bill’s inclusion of increased programming for individuals in disciplinary and administrative confinement. Reflecting on the eight months he spent in solitary, he said, “When I was in the facilities with programming and education was offered, I used those chances to earn my drivers license and associates degree and those things made me at least feel hopeful for what life had after incarceration. In segregation, there was very little access to education, behavioral or emotional wellness programming. And I could see that it was severely needed in that housing setting, especially for those who had been in there for long periods of time. I saw people who were really struggling to stay sane.”
Penny Juan spoke to the importance of excluding vulnerable populations from being held in solitary confinement, sharing that “I was in the hole [solitary confinement] 21 days during my pregnancy. Women are hollering in there… it was one of the worst times in my life … If you’re pregnant or you have mental issues, you are left [behind], you are one of the bottom. It just makes you want to be somebody worse. It takes away who you want to be.”
The House Committee also received verbal testimony from former warden and Assistant Director of RIDOC, Roberta Richman, highlighting the extent of support that HB5740 has received. Richman explained, “I’ve always had grave concerns about placing inmates, many of whom suffer from mental illness, in extended segregation. I’ve known some inmates who’ve spent months, years sometimes, in those seg units and I can attest to the harm done… I urge you to follow best practices already followed in the federal government and other states that limit the use of segregation to far shorter periods of time.”
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If the legislature chooses to pass HB5740, Rhode Island will join many other states that are moving away from the harmful practice of solitary confinement, including Colorado, Delaware, New York, Idaho, North Dakota and more. In fact, the Clinical Director and Director of Facility Operations at the North Dakota Department of Corrections submitted written testimony to the House Committee in favor of the bill, demonstrating this national network of support. With restrictions on the use of solitary confinement, North Dakota saw reduced rates of admission into segregation by 90%, no increases in disciplinary infractions, and a marked decrease in rates of violence in the Medium Security prison. More recently, Governor Cuomo of New York signed into law the HALT Solitary Act, which greatly resembles HB5740: the law also sets a 15-day limit on the use of solitary confinement, and bars the practice for several vulnerable groups.
The Restrictive Housing Act is set to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee in the coming weeks and will be available for viewing on RI Capitol TV.
Community members, organizers, and legislators will also be speaking about the importance of passing the Restrictive Housing Act at a press conference outside the Statehouse on April 27th at 3 pm. To learn more about the efforts to end the use of solitary in Rhode Island, visit closehighside.com.