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Solitary confinement guidelines sought for state prisons

Locked up in state prisons are some of the Minnesota’s nastiest criminals.

Many take advantage of offered resources to better themselves through things like education, skills training or chemical dependency programs, yet others choose to continue misbehaving.    

“As sad as it is to say, there will always be a need for restrictive housing,” Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy told the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee Tuesday. “Luckily, most offenders comply with their sentence and the rules in our prisons.”

Offenders who do not may end up in a roughly 8-by-10-foot cell in segregated housing, commonly referred to as solitary confinement.

Establishing guidelines for use of administrative and disciplinary segregation is the motivation for HF742. Sponsored by Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River), the bill, as amended, was held over for possible omnibus bill inclusion. A companion, SF608, sponsored by Sen. Dan Hall (R-Burnsville), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

This is about treating all inmates, especially those battling mental illness, like anyone else confined in a state prison, Zerwas said. “If someone had chronic hypertension, if someone had cancer, if someone had diabetes or any other medical condition … we wouldn’t put them in the equivalent of a bathroom for 300, 400, 500 or 600 days.”

Zerwas said a multi-part series last year by the Minneapolis Star Tribune showed that more than 17,500 inmates had spent time in segregated housing over the past decade, some for a year or longer. Of those, he said, 14 percent were recommended for state-ordered mental health treatment.

In addition to establishing grounds the department can use to place someone in segregation, the bill calls for inmates placed in segregation to be assessed for mental illness within one business day and receive regular mental health checks. A mental health exam would be required before an inmate who served more than 30 days in segregation is returned to general population and it would prohibit the release of an inmate directly from segregation into the community, as, Zerwas said, has happened nearly 700 times since 2010.

John Stuart, a Minneapolis attorney working with the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the changes would help in cases where “an alternative setting” would be better for an inmate with mental health needs.

Other proposed changes include:

  • creation of a graduated scale of responses to rule violations, such as loss of privileges, so segregation would be reserved for the most serious and persistent infractions;
  • inmates in segregation receive at least one hour outside their cell daily, instead of the current minimal requirement of one hour five days a week; and
  • a warden would review an inmate’s segregation status every 15 days, until the 60-day mark when the corrections commissioner or assistant commissioner would review the status.

Some of the proposed changes now occur through a recent department initiative; however, Roy worries all the changes may not align with the current process. He also expressed concern that additional money would be needed to be meet the bill requirements. No fiscal note to the amended bill was provided.

“It’s a very labor-intensive initiative,” he said. “Other states expand services; other states designate new facilities to deal with this. We think the request contained in the governor’s request is conservative.”

Included in the governor’s biennial budget request is an additional $3.77 million for restrictive housing reform. According to the request, “The majority of the requested funds will be used to hire staff to advance our Restrictive Housing Reform project initiatives, including cognitive skills programming and mental health counseling to offenders who are placed in segregation units due to serious misconduct.” 

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