INDIANA, HARDLY a bastion of bleeding-heart liberalism, became on Wednesday the latest state to curb the use in prisons of solitary confinement, an extreme, hellish and overused punishment. It follows President Obama, who on Monday announced reforms to prisoner isolation practices in federal prisons, and it joins California and New York as one of the latest states to submit to a legal settlement requiring changes. Indiana’s move is another sign of progress in ending a national scandal: the routine overuse of a practice that is akin to torture. But it took a class-action lawsuit to prompt the decision, and even then it promises insufficient change.
The case against Indiana’s Department of Correction centered on three inmates with mental illnesses who were placed in solitary confinement — or, per the state’s preferred euphemism, “restricted status housing” — which meant almost no out-of-cell time, limited contact with other inmates and prison staff, and punishments that exacerbate or give rise to mental problems. Except in a few, exceptional circumstances, prisoners with various types of mental illness will no longer have to endure the barbarity of solitary. Crucially, this is a broadly defined group, including not only people who are schizophrenic or bipolar but also those who suffer from anxiety disorders and other mental maladies that can lead to self-harm or functional impairment.
Mental-health experts will have much more leeway in determining the conditions in which their patients must live. The goal is to get them out of solitary and into an environment that might help — or at least not hinder — their treatment. To that end, the settlement requires that mentally ill inmates receive at least 10 hours of therapeutic out-of-cell time per week, a dramatic shift in current practice, and frequent in-cell visits from clinicians. These prisoners will also get more unstructured, recreational time outside their cells. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Amy Fettig says that these changes, particularly the out-of-cell requirements, match what many other states have done — either by choice or in response to a lawsuit — and are emerging as de facto national standards.
Even so, declining to torture the mentally ill is a low bar. Other states have done much more. Colorado, for example, scaled back its old solitary confinement system, significantly reducing the number of people the state isolates. The state’s head of prisons reports that disorder has not resulted. Instead, Colorado has shown that corrections officers have any number of more humane ways to keep order.
Protecting particularly vulnerable inmates is important, but so is reducing the use of solitary as a general, routine punishment for minor rule-breaking. Also essential is providing step-down programs that prepare those who have been isolated for life in the general prison population — or in larger society after their terms are up.
Every state may have a few inmates who are too dangerous to house with other people. But that is no excuse to continue the rank, rampant overuse of solitary confinement.
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