Report calls on Mich. DOC to reduce use of solitary confinement
The report calls on the department to use isolation "only if absolutely necessary" to protect the safety of prisoners and staff
By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press
LANSING — A report to be released Tuesday calls on the Michigan Department of Corrections to significantly reduce its use of solitary confinement, saying that isolating prisoners makes mental health problems worse and contributes to prisoner deaths.
Citizens for Prison Reform, in a report titled "Solitary: The Family Experience," calls on the department to use isolation "only if absolutely necessary" to protect the safety of prisoners and staff and to limit its use to no more than 15 days. The Lansing-based group also says the use of solitary confinement should end for vulnerable prisoners, including those with medical or mental health issues, those 21 or younger or over the age of 55, pregnant women and new mothers, and those who are LGBTQ.
"Despite the perception that these prisoners are 'the worst of the worst,' most people in solitary confinement are there because of mental illness or because they are 'nuisance' prisoners, who repeatedly have low-level violations," says the report, a copy of which was made available to the Free Press.
"Because of the harmful conditions, people in solitary are at extreme risk for self-mutilation and suicide."
The department agrees that it is important to reduce both the number of prisoners being isolated and how long they are held that way, "especially with regard to those with a serious mental illness," department spokesman Chris Gautz said Monday.
But the department and the reform group disagree on how prison segregation should be defined. As a result, they also disagree on how many are held in isolation in state prisons in Michigan.
The report counts more than 3,200 in isolation for more than 20 hours a day among the state prison population, which has dropped to 33,370 prisoners. According to the report, as of last June, those in solitary included 835 prisoners in administrative segregation, 319 in temporary segregation, 130 people in punitive segregation, 890 locked with the highest security classifications as "Level 5" prisoners, 102 prisoners housed in acute mental health units, and 26 prisoners housed in observation units because they were deemed at high risk of harming themselves.
The department would count those in administrative, temporary or punitive segregation, but not Level 5 prisoners or those in mental health units or observation cells, Gautz said.
"This group is using their own definition of restrictive housing to make the numbers look bigger," he said. "Their standard is not how it is defined in Michigan, nor is it the standard used nationally. That standard is typically defined as 22 hours or more in-cell each day. Someone simply that is a Level 5 prisoner, or receiving mental health treatment, does not meet that definition."
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Gautz said there were 904 prisoners in administrative segregation at the end of January. He could not say how many were in punitive or temporary segregation, noting that Monday was a holiday for officials who would have such data. Of those prisoners currently in isolation, Gautz could not state the longest duration any prisoner had been held that way.
“The conditions in solitary confinement are inhumane and reflect a broader problem within the prison culture,” sd Lois Pullano, executive director of Citizens for Prison Reform. “Such dehumanizing practices do not make our prisons or communities safer.”
Danielle Dunn of Washtenaw County, who is close to settling a federal lawsuit she and other family members brought over the 2019 death of her brother Jonathan Lancaster at Alger Correctional Facility in Munising, said Monday there is no doubt that the department's segregation policies and practices contributed to his death.
Lancaster was 38 and physically healthy when he arrived at Alger, but had mental health and addiction issues. Dunn said his condition deteriorated rapidly after he was placed in segregation, apparently in response to an altercation with another prisoner.
"I think it sent him over the edge," she said.
Lancaster, who was eventually moved to an observation cell and restrained in his chair before his death, lost 51 pounds, was severely dehydrated, and was found lying in his own feces and urine, according to a statement of claim.
A federal judge in Grand Rapids has given preliminary approval to a proposed settlement under which defendants from the MDOC and its medical contractor, Corizon Health, would pay $2.6 million to Dunn and other Lancaster relatives, court records show.
"His death was pretty outrageous," Dunn said.
Other recommendations in the report include training in de-escalation techniques for corrections and medical staff, ending the use of restraints, appointing a family liaison for each solitary unit, ending the practice of sometimes withholding food or water from those in solitary, and appointing an independent oversight committee on conditions of confinement, including the use of solitary confinement.
Gautz said the use of segregation has dropped significantly in the last 10 years and further reductions are part of the department's strategic plan.
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