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Activists offer opportunity to experience solitary confinement

Justice Overcoming Borders, Beloit’s chapter of the NAACP and Beloit College’s Spiritual Life Program will present the replica to the public Oct. 27-30

By Frank Schultz
The Janesville Gazette

BELOIT—Activists working to end solitary confinement in prisons will present a mockup of a solitary confinement cell and Beloit College next week.

Justice Overcoming Borders, Beloit’s chapter of the NAACP and Beloit College’s Spiritual Life Program will present the replica to the public Oct. 27-30.

“Most people in our society have no idea what solitary confinement is actually like. The biggest problem with the way mass incarceration happens is that the brutality and injustice of the system are hidden from everyone who is targeted by it,” said Bill Conover, director of spiritual life at the college, in a news release.

A state Department of Corrections spokeswoman issued a statement but declined to answer questions from The Gazette, such as how long prisoners can be held in solitary and whether some are kept there for years.

A report by Wisconsin Watch said new rules set a maximum initial term of 90 days for the most serious offenses, including aggravated assault on staff or hostage-taking.

The sentence can be shortened for mitigating factors, such as mental illness, or lengthened for aggravating factors, such as whether an inmate is a serial violator. All sentences of 120 days or more must be reviewed by the DOC secretary, according to Wisconsin Watch.

Advocates say anything more than 15 days in solitary is torture.

Conover said the purpose of the installation is to give individuals the opportunity to experience a solitary confinement cell.

Visitors will be able to listen to a soundtrack with a recording from an actual solitary confinement cellblock.

“This is an opportunity for a person to imagine themselves in that position,” Conover said of the cell. “This is an opportunity to ask questions: When is this used? How long are people left in solitary confinement?”

Dorothy Harrell, president of the Beloit branch of the NAACP, said that the exhibit is the first step toward informing the people of Beloit about the issue.

“Our state exceeds the international human rights standards on torture in the way it uses solitary confinement,” she says. “Until people know what’s happening, people are unaware of the need for change.”

“We’ve been doing a lot of great reform,” Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joy Staab said when asked about solitary confinement.

Staab issued a statement saying that a group within the department issued new rules in January for “restrictive housing” and that recent changes include:

-- Streamlining the process for disciplinary hearings.

-- Emphasizing alternative sanctions to restrictive housing.

-- More input from psychology staff during disciplinary hearings.

-- “Development of consistent programming and positive behavioral incentives.”

“As part of this change, the Restrictive Housing Unit has become the last alternative used to correct behavior, typically when other dispositions have failed to correct the offender’s behavior,” Staab wrote.

Staab said the average number of inmates “in a punitive restrictive-housing status” was 1,312 in 2013 and 1,240 in 2014.

Wisconsin Watch quoted a 2013 report by the Association of State Correctional Administrators that said Wisconsin had 118 inmates who had been in segregation continuously for more than two years.

Wisconsin Watch also cited a 2009 Wisconsin state audit found “mentally ill inmates have been overrepresented” in solitary confinement.

The group sponsoring the Beloit event issued a statement saying: “Even with changes that the Department of Corrections is suggesting—but not requiring–Wisconsin will still be far behind other states in reforming the use of solitary confinement.

“Some examples of past confinements have been 180 days for loitering and 360 days for attempted suicide. This is inhumane and outrageous,” the group says.

Jails in Rock and Walworth counties do not have solitary confinement cells, officials said.

In Rock County, an inmate might be put in a cell alone, but the inmate is never cut off from contact with others, said Cmdr. Troy Knutson of the sheriff’s office.