Photo by Hédi Benyounes

Legal experts, interfaith coalition leaders, formerly incarcerated organizers, public health advocates, and legislators are gathering on Tuesday, April 27th in support of the Restrictive Housing Act. Bills S0395 and H5740, sponsored by Senator Tiara Mack and Representative Grace Diaz, will end the abusive practices of long term solitary confinement.. Legislators will read testimony from people who are currently living in Rhode Island’s High Security prison, which was designed for long-term isolation/solitary confinement in eight-by-ten foot cells for 22-24 hours a day. The press conference will be held in front of a complete replica of the cell.

Close High Side Coalition organizer Tarah Dorsey gave the following statement:

“I spent two years in seg, in solitary confinement…It’s built to break you. To break your spirit. To break your mind. To me it’s a form of torture. That’s something that could be a military tactic, to break someone’s spirit. I used to call segregation the Warehouse of the Broken. Breaking people down. I’ve seen people literally stab themselves with their eyeglasses to get out of seg…to have somebody to talk to…It’s not right. Something has to be done about it. That’s why I’m using my voice, and hopefully it’s loud enough and clear enough.”

Other speakers will include former State Representative Aaron Regunberg, Natalia Friedlander from the Center for Justice, Dondi Alves from Amos House, and Roberta Richman, former Assistant Director at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections.

Solitary confinement is a practice that is widely recognized as “cruel,” “inhumane,” and “torture,” according to the United Nations. Long-term solitary confinement causes severe harm to mental health (such as increased rates of anxiety, obsessive ruminations, and anger)and increases violence in prisons. Time spent in solitary is associated with increased mortality post-release. Even RIDOC Director Patricia Coyne-Fague has acknowledged that “keeping people in cells 23 hours a day is not the way to go, in a statement before the House Finance Committee in 2019.

Solitary confinement takes a toll on anyone’s body and mind, but it is especially harmful for individuals with severe and persistent mental illness (SPMI). Still, RIDOC continues this harmful practice. In the final report of the RI Solitary Confinement Study Commission in 2017, RIDOC pledged to exclude individuals who have SPMI from restrictive housing, recognizing the significant negative impact. Yet individuals who are mentally ill continue to be placed in solitary confinement, rather than receiving rehabilitative treatment. Disability Rights Rhode Island sued the RI Department of Corrections for keeping individuals with SPMI in solitary confinement in 2019. The lawsuit is ongoing.

The racial disparities in our criminal justice system are even more extreme when it comes to solitary confinement. As of April 19th of this year, 47% of individuals held in the High Security Center were Black and 27% were Hispanic.

 

In Rhode Island, some prisoners are put in solitary in High Security for acts of “disobedience” or for substance use, rather than receiving treatment or rehabilitative programming. Recent protests have highlighted the case of Francisco Vega, who was beaten by correctional officers until he blacked out on March 22nd in the Medium Security facility and then moved to High Side for fourteen months in solitary confinement.

Organizers have noted that High Side is RIDOC’s most expensive facility, costing $195,000 per prisoner per year, compared to $82,000 per prisoner in Maximum Security in FY 2019. There are currently 85-90 people incarcerated in the High Side facility, and an unknown number of people being held in solitary confinement across the other ACI facilities.

Many other states have closed their supermax prisons and safely reduced their use of solitary confinement. For example: Illinois closed Tamms, the state’s only supermax prison, in 2013; Mississippi moved all 1,000 prisoners out of its sole supermax facility between 2007 and 2010; and Colorado closed one supermax prison, eliminated long-term solitary confinement, and launched a well-regarded and highly successful 12-week gang disengagement program. In 2019, 12 states passed legislation to reform solitary confinement and New York passed similar legislation last month.

 

RI 2021 H5740

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