RI prison officials to examine controversial use of solitary confinement

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – The head of Rhode Island’s correctional system says officials are reexamining the practice of placing inmates in disciplinary confinement, as states nationwide place strict limits on how the controversial practice is used.

But A.T. Wall, longtime director of the R.I. Department of Corrections, told Target 12 he opposes any legislation that would clamp down on the practice. He argued enacting a new state law would put “rigid” restrictions on how to handle inmate disciplinary cases, and said any changes should come through prison regulations.

“I don’t want to see our staff in a position where they can’t take the steps that are necessary because the limitations are enshrined in a statute,” Wall said. “All that being said, we are evolving, too, and we are not averse to taking a fresh look at our policies and practices in determining what the right balance is between safety and security in one hand and the inmate’s ability to function upon release on the other hand.”

State Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, has sponsored a bill that would – among several changes – place a 15-day limit on how long an inmate can be placed into what’s commonly known as solitary confinement.

Prison policy currently allows officials to keep an inmate in restrictive housing for a maximum of one year in disciplinary cases. But the director has wide latitude to determine how long an inmate can stay in what’s called administrative confinement, where the prison has deemed someone to be a repeated threat to themselves or the rest of the prison population.

Wall said the longest-serving inmate currently in administrative confinement has been there for three years.

“We have to have a place to put those who prey on others,” Wall said. “We have to put them in a place that separates them from the rest of the institution so that the institution will be safe.”

Regunberg said he’s concerned inmates who go into solitary are in worse condition rather than rehabilitated when they come out.

“The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture designated the use of solitary over 15 days as amounting to torture,” Regunberg told Target 12. “We’re doing that in the state of Rhode Island every day to our citizens at the ACI.”

‘I lost my mind’

Former inmate Edwin Rivera admits he was a problem inmate while serving time at the ACI for murder. He routinely broke the rules, including by getting into fights with other inmates.

One altercation landed him in disciplinary confinement for one year.

“That year, like, I lost my mind,” Rivera told Target 12. “Segregation destroys people inside. Your mind, you’re not the same … I’m not the same.”

Inmates in restrictive housing usually spend 23 hours a day in their cell. Prison policy requires that inmates be let out into an outdoor area – or recreation yard – at least three times a week for one hour, but prison officials say that usually happens every weekday.

Prison officials say a lack of funding prevents them from having enough staff to continue the practice on weekends.

Regunberg’s bill would require that an inmate is released from his or her cell for at least four hours a day.

“If you keep an animal locked up in a cage, when you open it he will come out more vicious,” Rivera said.

Wall gave Target 12 unfettered access to the ACI’s High Security facility, where many of the worst disciplinary cases wind up. Reporters were allowed to talk to correctional officers, prison staff –including social workers and mental health professionals – as well as inmates who were serving time in disciplinary confinement.

The rec yard where inmates go for their hour a day outside the cell is separated into several cages made of high-walled chain link fences. Inmates are walked into the area in handcuffs; once the door is closed they place their wrists through a slot where the cuffs are removed. Two inmates were placed into each caged-in area together, and Wall said correctional officers encourage the prisoners to talk.

One prisoner – whom officials asked Eyewitness News not to identify – told Target 12 he was wrapping up a one-year stint in segregation for selling narcotics inside prison.

During the interview, which took place under the watchful eye of prison staff, the inmate said he felt he was getting the treatment he needed to help cope with being in restrictive housing and to ease him back into the general population, but also said he was dealing with anxiety issues.

“You become used to this, then once you go back … there is a lot of people in general population, so you get kind of nervous around groups,” the inmate said. “I know it’s safe – they do their job, they keep us all safe – but [I] have anxiety issues of being in crowds, I don’t know how to, like, fix that.”

At that point, Wall walked over to interject and explain to the inmate that he wouldn’t be simply thrust back into general population.

”There are ‘step-downs’ where you will be participating in groups, so there will be more and more people with whom you interact with,” he said. “It won’t be going from A to Z; you will have gone through those steps.”

“Yeah,” the inmate replied.

Serious and Persistent Mental Illness

The number of inmates in restrictive housing on any given day is fluid, but on April 21, the day Target 12 toured the segregation units, there were 137 inmates in disciplinary confinement and another 32 in administrative confinement. In all, there were 3,017 inmates serving time at the ACI.

Life for inmates placed into either category is similar, though those in administrative confinement generally have more perks, including access to a radio. Prisoners in restrictive housing are allowed books and magazines and can write letters. Restrictive housing cells have a single bed and toilet and a window fitted with a metal bar to prevent an inmate from popping out the glass to escape.

Every few days inmates are removed from their cells for a shower. Some are allowed one phone call and one visitor a week, unless their punishment prohibits it.

Wall claims there are inmates who struggle while in the general population so they lash out just so they can be placed into restrictive housing. And once there, they have been known to hunker down.

Correctional officers call it “nesting.” And mental illness can play a big role.

Prisons nationally have to deal with a high number of inmates suffering from mental illness, and the ACI is not immune.

Wall said 15% to 17% of Rhode Island’s prison population has been diagnosed with what doctors deem “serious and persistent mental illness.”

Some suffering from mental illness do find themselves in restrictive housing or administrative confinement, but Wall said they have been known to waive sentences for those inmates.

“I wouldn’t want you to think, or the public to think, that people are simply brought into these situations without a good reason, that they are not being dealt with and treated while they are here,” Wall said. “We’re more professional than that.”

The bill proposed by Regunberg prohibits certain types of inmates from being placed into segregation, including those suffering from mental illness.

“There are ways we can be addressing the behavioral issues, the mental health issues, that send folks to segregation more humanely and more effectively,” Regunberg said.

Gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners would also be excluded from segregation if Regunberg’s bill were to become law.

Weighing the cost

The cost to keep an inmate in High Security restrictive housing is higher than keeping one in general population. According to a RIDOC budget document, it costs taxpayers $192,250 annually to house an inmate in High Security. An inmate in Maximum Security costs $68,236, according to the latest figures.

Not all inmates in High Security are in segregation, but Wall acknowledged restrictive housing is more costly because of the inmate-to-officer ratio.

He also said the High Security building was poorly designed and requires more staff to run the facility because the different segregation units are spread out. He said a more centralized design would allow them to use fewer staff to keep tabs on the restrictive housing units. There are no plans to renovate the facility.

Regunberg said money that is now being syphoned into the cost of restrictive housing could be better spent on programs that would work to prevent inmates from being problem prisoners in the first place.

“The question I think we should be asking is, is that the most effective way we could be using our public dollars?” Regunberg said.

As an example, Regunberg cited changes the Maine prison system made in 2011, sharply reducing how often officials there place an inmate in segregation.

A Maine Department of Corrections spokesperson said they made the changes through policy, not law.

“They were able to reduce the population in segregation by approximately two-thirds,” Regunberg said. “They were able to save a boatload of money from that and redirect those resources toward the kind of programs that can specifically address those behavioral issues, those mental health issues that were getting people into segregation in the first place.”

Other states that have altered their use of solitary include Ohio, Colorado, New York, Michigan and California. Wall said as part of the process of reviewing Rhode Island’s policies, his team will exam how other states handle segregation.

“The thinking of the profession is evolving,” Wall said. “We are aware, and there is a trend not only internationally but across the country, that there are consequences that can occur as a result of excessive confinement.”

He declined to say how long the review process would take.

In the rec yard, with his one hour of time out of his cell nearing its end, one inmate said he thinks his time in disciplinary confinement will likely change how he behaves when he returns to general population.

“It depends on your behavior: if you’re good, stay booking free and do the right thing, then they work you down slowly,” the inmate said. “If you keep getting in trouble then that’s your own fault… That’s your fault.”

Tim White( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter: @TimWhiteRI