Solitary Confinement Tragedies Expose Flaws in Rhode Island’s Prison System
Three suicides at ACI in Rhode Island spotlight the urgent need for reform in solitary confinement policies. Families, advocates, and lawmakers rally, calling for justice and an end to what many see as systemic torture within the prison system.
“Brian Rodenas should be alive today,” said Representative Leonela Felix (Democrat, District 61, Pawtucket) to a crowd of over 50 people at the Rhode Island State House on Tuesday. “He had been placed in solitary confinement not because he was violent, but because he was suspected of hoarding medications. This is a clear abuse of the solitary confinement system. Individuals sentenced to serve time should not be subjected to such harsh conditions that it leads them to take their own lives. This system is in desperate need of reform.”
Three men have died, reportedly by suicide, while incarcerated at the ACI over the past few months. Those deaths, say advocates, may have been prevented had the General Assembly acted earlier. Solitary confinement, also called restrictive housing, involves securing incarcerated individuals in a small cell, around eight by ten feet, without human contact.
In response to these high-profile deaths at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in Cranston, Representative Felix and Senator Jonathan Acosta were joined at the rally by the Stop Torture Coalition, made up of survivors of solitary confinement, families who lost loved ones and advocates from around the state, to draw attention to the need for reform.
The family of Pawtucket resident Brian Rodenas, who died at the age of 27, was at the rally. They have been told by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC) that their son had been in solitary confinement for around ten days at the time of his death. He was sent to solitary not because of violent behavior, but because he was suspected of hoarding medications.
Rodenas’ family disputes that account, saying he was held in solitary confinement for much longer. They received a letter from their son, dated March 15, saying he was in solitary confinement and would only be able to call for ten minutes every 30 days. He was in solitary confinement when he was found dead on May 2.
In the letter, Rodenas wrote::
“Hi Ma, it’s your favorite son. I hope you’re doing good. I got in trouble so I’m in seg, get out of seg on April 18th. Don’t worry, I’m fine. I’m still coming home next year, that is my promise to you. 2024 will be my year.” [Note “seg,” short for segregation, is RIDOC terminology for solitary confinement.]
Weeks later Rodenas was given another minor booking that would have forced him to stay in solitary confinement even longer, and committed suicide soon after. This information directly contradicts the statement reported recently in the Providence Journal by Richard Ferruccio, President of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, stating that Mr. Rodenas was only in solitary confinement for 10 days. [More on Ferruccio here and here.]
There is currently no oversight process and correctional officers are not required to report when, and for how long, individuals are held in solitary confinement.
Dana Thomas Leyland, 39, of Pawtucket, had been awaiting sentencing on a drug offense when he committed suicide in solitary. The third man has not yet been publicly identified by the DOC.
The deaths were not surprising to Brandon Robinson, who served a 15-year sentence at the ACI and got out in 2019. While incarcerated, Robinson worked as a porter, cleaning the solitary confinement cells.
“Individuals in solitary confinement taking their own lives was a regular occurrence,” said Robinson. “They would be in solitary so long they would start hallucinating, seeing things that aren’t there. They just couldn’t cope. When a suicide would occur, it was my job to clean the blood off the walls and untie the knots in the sheets of those who took their lives.”
Defenders of the practice claim that solitary confinement is a necessary tool to maintain control in a difficult environment. By separating violent inmates from the general population, they argue, correctional officers can best keep inmates safe. Creating a disincentive to violent behavior, they say, is crucial to preventing fights.
But advocates argue that overusing solitary confinement is counterproductive and leads to more violence. Studies in states such as Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maine found lower reports of violent incidents after they restricted and regulated the use of solitary confinement. They also point to the fiscal costs of solitary confinement. Keeping an inmate at the high security center costs the state roughly $216,000 per year, according to the Department of Corrections 2021 annual report.
“When I was serving my time, I saw people who were violent, who needed to be separated from the rest of the population,” said Robinson, who has since received his bachelor’s degree and is pursuing a master’s degree from Roger Williams University. “But I also saw people get put in solitary because their t-shirt wasn’t tucked in or they didn’t stand up fast enough at count. Right now, there’s no accountability, no regulations. A correctional officer having a bad day could literally torture you with no repercussions or oversight.”
A bill by Senator Acosta and Representative Felix (2023-S 0617, 2023-H 6161) would establish an oversight committee to monitor the use of solitary confinement in Rhode Island. The bill would also lay out clear guidelines for when solitary confinement could be used and when it couldn’t. The practice would be restricted to punishment for violent offences and prohibited, except in emergencies, for inmates with developmental or psychiatric disabilities and no one could be kept in solitary confinement for more than 22 hours each day.
The United Nations defines keeping inmates in solitary confinement for more than 22 hours a day as torture. Robinson and other former inmates say they were regularly kept alone in their cell for 23 or 24 hours a day.
“If you have individuals starving at night, being treated less than you would treat your dog at home, they are being tortured,” said Robinson. “Which would make [Rhode Island] a torture state. And that’s not something that I want to be a part of. Do you?”
The Senate bill was heard in the Senate Committee on Judiciary on March 21. The House bill was heard in the House Judiciary Committee on April 4. Both bills are currently being held for further study.
“This bill is not about banning solitary confinement,” said Senator Acosta (Democrat, District 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket). “It’s about reforming the system to ensure accountability and ensure the practice is used as a last resort. The General Assembly funds the ACI. It is incumbent on us to exercise oversight and ensure taxpayer dollars aren’t funding the arbitrary torture of our neighbors. These are human beings, and their lives have value.”