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Do states in the Midwest restrict the use of solitary confinement in prisons?

by Laura Kliewer ~ June/July 2017 ~ Question of the Month »
The use of solitary confinement in prisons (also known as restrictive housing or segregation) has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. One reason for employing this practice is to isolate inmates deemed threats to safety. But over the past three decades, the Vera Institute for Justice says, departments of corrections have increasingly used solitary confinement “to punish disruptive but nonviolent behavior, protect vulnerable inmates, or temporarily house inmates awaiting the completion of a facility transfer.”
That may be starting to change. Recent state laws, prison policies and legal settlements have put new constraints on the use of this practice. Prisoners placed in solitary confinement are often alone in a cell for most or all of the day. Natural light, reading and other materials, along with visitation, are often very limited. Individuals subjected to confinement, especially if it is prolonged, exhibit a variety of negative physiological and psychological reactions, according to the Vera Institute.
In 2015, the institute chose Nebraska to participate in its Safe Alternatives to Segregation initiative, the goal of which is to reduce the use of segregated prisoner housing. That same year, the Unicameral Legislature passed LB 598, which requires the Department of Correctional Services to employ the “least restrictive manner possible” when separating an inmate from the general prison population.
One year earlier, a series of legislative hearings showed that a lack of formal rules on solitary confinement allowed a Nebraska inmate to be isolated for much of his time in prison. When released from prison, this inmate killed four people in Omaha.
With new state regulations now in place, regular reviews are conducted of the Nebraska inmates in restrictive housing. In addition, housing segregation is no longer used as a disciplinary sanction for rule violations.
In Illinois, as part of the 2015 settlement to a class-action lawsuit regarding the treatment of mentally ill prisoners, the state instituted a new rule requiring people with a mental illness who have been in solitary confinement for 60 days to spend at least 10 structured hours and 10 unstructured hours out of their cells each week. Under the settlement, too, mentally ill prisoners cannot be segregated due to minor violations of corrections policy or behaviors caused by their illness.
Earlier that same year, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice banned the punitive solitary confinement of juveniles (they still can be confined for safety reasons), and youths separated for 24 hours or longer must be allowed out of their rooms and provided an opportunity to interact with staff for at least eight hours per day. These policy changes were the result of litigation brought by the ACLU of Illinois.
According to a 2016 survey done by the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest, three other Midwestern states ban the use of punitive solitary confinement in juvenile correctional facilities: Nebraska, the result of LB 598 and the subsequent regulations barring “disciplinary segregation”; North Dakota, under a policy of its Youth Correctional Center; and Ohio, due to a consent agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice. And last year, Nebraska legislators passed a bill (LB 894) requiring all of the state’s juvenile justice facilities to provide detailed data on all instances of room confinements that exceed one hour.


Article written by Laura Kliewer, a CSG Midwest senior policy analyst. Question of the Month highlights an inquiry sent to the CSG Midwest Information Help Line.