Tom Dart is sheriff of Cook County, Ill.
Recent criminal-justice reform ended the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons. Now a group of lawmakers including Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are pushing to limit solitary confinement in federal prisons more broadly.
However, the realities of solitary confinement playing out in other correctional institutions across the country — including county jails, like the one I run — remain unaddressed and misunderstood.
Whether termed solitary confinement, disciplinary segregation or something else, it is almost always the same thing and produces the same disturbing and, too often, grave consequences. Individuals are confined alone in roughly 7-by-11-foot concrete cells for up to 23 hours a day with little human contact and no access to natural light. For as few as 60 minutes a day, they are allowed out of their cells to pace about another concrete area no larger than a dog run. In some cases, it’s outdoors; in others, not. This punishment is meted out for reasons ranging from disobeying an officer’s order to violent assaults on staff, and it can last anywhere from 24 hours to years. Most facilities make no accommodation for detainees suffering from severe mental illness.
And the damage solitary inflicts on people is indisputable. Years of research have demonstrated that the effects include mental illness, anger, despondency and self-harm; psychiatrist Stuart Grassian concluded that solitary can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome that includes hallucinations, panic attacks and paranoia.
Of course, some kind of disciplinary mechanism is needed, because jails are inherently volatile. Unlike prisons, jails generally don’t house people who have been convicted and sentenced — the population is overwhelmingly made up of people awaiting trial. At my jail in Cook County, Ill. — one of the nation’s largest, with about 5,500 detainees — we have seen an increasing length of stay for individuals in our custody, for many reasons including a painfully slow-moving criminal-justice system. Several of our current detainees have been here nearly 10 years without adjudication. Add to that frustration, the presence of members of fractious Chicago street gangs and society’s de facto decision to jail the mentally ill, and it’s easy to see how jails can become violent places. However, the solution to that violence is not solitary confinement.
I know there is a better way. I know because we have been doing it differently here in Chicago for nearly three years now. After years of handling violence just like most other jails, we realized that solitary was not solving the problem. It was contributing to it. And so, since May 2016, we have not housed any detainee in a solitary setting, not for even one hour.
Instead, we created a new place in the jail called the Special Management Unit (SMU) to house detainees who resort to violence and/or break the rules. There they can spend time in open rooms or yards with other detainees — as many as six or eight at a time — under direct supervision by staff members trained in conflict deescalation and resolution techniques and with precautions in place to ensure safety. Mental-health professionals provide weekly sessions on anger management, coping skills and conflict resolution. We also changed the disciplinary process for infractions to include other programming including thoughtful hearings and increased classes and activities .
Staffers, though skeptical at first, have been amazing. They have bought into this alternative to using isolation as a cudgel. After all, these new practices have not just benefited our detainees, they have also improved our working conditions. Since we introduced this model to our jail, detainee-on-detainee assaults have dropped significantly and assaults on staff plummeted. Last year we recorded the lowest number of total assaults since the SMU was established.
While the national discussion on criminal-justice reform tends to focus on sentencing, we must also reexamine the conditions of confinement we employ in jails, particularly the use of solitary. No reputable study has ever documented any positive effects from solitary confinement.
Regardless of your position on criminal-justice reform, you should realize that more than 70 percent of our jail detainees do not spend the rest of their days in prison — rather, they are released and return to their communities. This may be because charges against them are dropped, bonds are paid, plea agreements are signed, or they go to trial and are found not guilty. In all those cases, the result is the same — they are released from jail. What are we doing to our communities when we send them people, suddenly unmonitored, who have spent the past few months of their lives in a concrete room, devoid of any human contact?
The results often involve violence, volatility and recidivism. It is time solitary is addressed and eliminated in jails around the country.