State Officials Rethinking Use of Solitary Confinement
Other states are reforming. Some argue it's torture. Part 2 of series.
At Waupun Correctional Institution in 2012, one inmate being transferred to the state prison’s segregation unit threatened to throw his foot locker at officers, according to a use-of-force report obtained by Gannett Wisconsin Media.
The inmate, whose name was redacted, ignored commands, declared “I am not going to seg” and tossed water from his cell. Members of the “pad subduing team” assembled in response sprayed the inmate three times with pepper spray and shot him twice with a taser. The inmate finally fell to the floor and was shackled, then taken to segregation, commonly known as solitary confinement.
While being strip searched — done whenever an inmate is taken to or from the segregation unit — he “became violently resistive” and was tasered a third time.
Waupun’s segregation unit, which houses up to 180 inmates, is not a place inmates want to be. And for good reason: The unit blends severe isolation with the recurring use of force. Two inmates in segregation at Waupun, a state prison 55 miles northeast of Madison, have committed suicide in the past 18 months.
The use-of-force reports released for Waupun from 2012 and most of 2013 include six cases in which force was deployed against inmates in segregation while they were engaged in acts of self-harm or attempted suicide.
One inmate cut his wrist and forearm with metal from his glasses and was pepper sprayed. Others were tasered or sprayed after taking pills or attempting to hang themselves with a bedsheet or pillow case.
The segregation unit at Waupun has drawn multiple complaints from inmates alleging abuse by guards. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has identified 40 separate allegations of physical or psychological abuse involving 33 inmates since 2011.
Prison officials deny abuse is occurring and accuse the inmates making these allegations of lying. But the volume of complaints has stirred the notice of a state senator, an advocate for the disabled and a former state prison chief.
All of this is playing out against a national debate over the use of solitary confinement, especially for inmates suffering from mental illness. New York, Maine and Virginia have taken recent steps to alter or reduce the use of solitary. The prison chief in New Mexico has also called for reform. In February, a U.S. Senate committee held hearings on the issue.
Wall cited national developments in this area, including the “sobering” observations of former Wisconsin DOC secretary Rick Raemisch, now executive director of Colorado’s state prison system. Raemisch testified before the Senate committee, calling solitary confinement “overused, misused and abused.”
“Segregation either multiplies or manufactures mental illness,” Raemisch said in an interview. “It may help (control behavior) while the person is behind that steel door, but what you’re doing is magnifying the problem.”
Wall, in his memo, raised the same concern. He said simply locking inmates in segregation without providing corrective or rehabilitative programming “may really just be helping to create a worse behavior problem and habitual threat.”
Is segregation torture?
According to DOC spokeswoman Joy Staab, all but one of the state’s adult prisons have segregation. Currently about 1,500 of the state’s 22,000 inmates are in segregation, which is commonly used to discipline prisoners.
“The way segregation is used now in Wisconsin is, by definition, torture,” said the Rev. Jerry Hancock, the former head of law-enforcement services in the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Hancock, now director of the Madison-based Prison Ministry Project, cites the call from a United Nations expert for a ban on the use of segregation in excess of 15 days, saying it “can amount to torture.”
Wisconsin law allows inmates to be sentenced to up to 360 days in segregation per disciplinary charge. Subsequent charges can bring additional sentences.
Early this year Raemisch, a former Republican Dane County sheriff who headed the Wisconsin DOC from 2007 to 2011 under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, got a taste of what solitary is like by spending 20 hours in a Colorado prison cell.
“I began to count the small holes carved in the walls,” he wrote in an op-ed on his experience in the New York Times. “Tiny grooves made by inmates who’d chipped away at the cell as the cell chipped away at them.” The column drew national attention.
According to Raemisch, Colorado has dramatically reduced the number of inmates in segregation, from 1,500 in 2011 to fewer than 500 today, and “we’re going to be decreasing that further.” He said the system has virtually ended such confinement for women and the severely mentally ill.
The reductions started under Tom Clements, Raemisch’s predecessor as head of the Colorado state prison system. Clements was murdered last year by an inmate who had recently been released directly from segregation into the community.
“Whatever solitary confinement did for that former inmate and murderer, it was not for the better,” Raemisch wrote.
Raemisch, while declining to specifically critique Wisconsin’s prison system, believes that corrections has “lost sight of its mission” — not just to efficiently lock people up, but to effectively teach them how to behave. Raemisch, noting that “97 percent of inmates are ultimately returned to their communities,” considers that vital.
“You can’t give up on trying to make them better, because if you do give up, you’re going to make them worse,” he said.
‘A sickening place to work’
Studies have linked prolonged solitary confinement to severe anxiety, visual and auditory hallucinations, uncontrollable fear and rage, a lack of impulse control and self-harm.
“It is well documented that the severe psychological stress of spending 23-24 hours a day in a stainless steel and concrete box, often with very little natural sunlight for months on end, no physical contact with friends or family, and virtually nothing to do leads to lasting psychological damage,” declares Wisdom, a faith-based state advocacy group, in a draft report. “It also does absolutely nothing to facilitate rehabilitation, undermining the ability of prisoners to function once they are released.”
Of special concern is the impact on inmates with mental illness. A 2009 Wisconsin state audit found that “mentally ill inmates have been overrepresented in segregation.” In January 2008, it said, 46 percent of the inmates in segregation were mentally ill, compared to a third of the overall prison population. At Waupun, it said, 61 percent of the inmates in segregation were mentally ill.
The DOC denied the Center’s request to visit the segregation unit at Waupun and talk to inmates there “based on the disruption it would cause in the facility, your safety and the confidentiality of inmates,” spokeswoman Staab said.
Brian Cunningham, a Waupun correctional officer who heads the union that represents state prison workers, said that is no surprise, calling this form of incarceration the DOC’s “dirty little secret.”
“It’s sickening to work in seg,” Cunningham said, speaking in his capacity as a union official.
Inmates come to segregation, he said, because they cannot manage to follow general population rules. Correctional officers must do everything for inmates, from feeding them to putting them in restraints every time they are moved.
“It’s just an incredibly difficult job to do,” said Cunningham, who works elsewhere in the prison. “We all dread working in seg.”
Cunningham, describing the conditions for inmates, paints a bleak picture. “You know, he doesn’t come out,” he said. “He’s stuck in a cell the size of your bathroom. His bed is made out of concrete. His toilet is bolted to the wall. There is nothing good about seg.”
Inmates sue over treatment
In 2010, state officials agreed to make changes in policy at the segregation unit at Waupun to settle a lawsuit brought by two inmates alleging the conditions there amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The state agreed to provide new windows, magazines and dimmer night lights.
A separate federal lawsuit filed by five inmates in 2011 alleges that segregation is used as punishment for behavior that is due directly to psychological disorders. It said inmates in segregation “are confined nearly 24 hours a day, alone, in a small cell constructed with concrete floor, brick walls, and a box-car steel door that causes extreme forced isolation, social isolation, sensory deprivation, and deprivation of direct human contact.”
The state, in its answer, admitted that the inmates have only a small window and are allowed out of their cells only four hours a week for recreation but denied that these conditions amounted to extreme isolation.
One of the inmates involved in the suit obtained a statement from Eugene Braaksma, a state psychologist who worked part-time at Waupun for more than five years, ending in 2012. He said in an interview that the segregation unit is “sadly where some of the most seriously mentally ill persons end up.”
Braaksma, who now works at Central Wisconsin Center, a state facility in Madison for the developmentally disabled, said in his statement that the use of segregation “can exacerbate symptoms for individuals suffering from pre-existing anxiety-based mental illnesses.” This can lead to “acting out behaviors” that extend an inmate’s confinement.
Braaksma’s statement says he tried on several occasions to make his concerns known to Warden William Pollard and other administrative staff. He believes they, thus informed, had “a responsibility (to) explore other options” for these inmates but did not.
Pollard, asked about Braaksma’s statement, declined to respond directly. But he defended the level of medical and psychological services provided to inmates in segregation.
“The health and well-being of inmates is important to the department,” Pollard wrote, saying psychological and medical staff make regular visits. Additional staff have been added to allow inmates more out-of-cell time, he said, and inmates “are offered several types of programming including various groups and self-help material.”
A lawsuit filed in federal court late last year also alleges abuse directly related to an inmate’s mental illness. Waupun inmate Noah Frieden said he has been clinically diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder; one manifestation is that he compulsively must do everything right side first.
During a strip search on June 13, 2013, the complaint says, Friedan was ordered to move his left foot. When he instead moved his right foot, correctional officer Joseph Beahm and Lt. Jessie Schneider “slammed plaintiff’s face into the steel grated strip cage door.”
The complaint states that Beahm “started to twist the plaintiff’s wrists” and a third officer discharged a taser into Frieden’s back, while Beahm yelled “Stop resisting!” Frieden, the complaint says, “issued a series of loud piercing cries.” Whereupon he was again allegedly slammed into the steel door.
Beahm and Schneider did not respond to requests for comment. The prison incident reports say Frieden “was screaming very loudly” and “would not lift his left leg and began to kick his right leg in staff’s direction.” It confirms that he was shot with a taser and “directed to the strip cell door with minimal force.”
Calls for change sounded here
Kit Kerschensteiner, managing attorney with Disability Rights Wisconsin, said inmates with mental illness are punished more frequently and often that is because their disability makes it difficult for them to follow rules.
“Unfortunately, prisons like Waupun were never intended to be treatment facilities,” Kerschensteiner said. “Correctional officers don’t have the training or supervision to work with people with mental illness. A crisis situation can quickly escalate and in our experience often ends in excessive force and abuse.”
Kerschensteiner said her group hears often from Waupun inmates seeking to be transferred to the Wisconsin Resource Center, a state prison facility in Winnebago that provides mental health treatment. But “even if we could get them transferred, once they were stabilized at WRC they would be sent back to make room for new patients and the downward cycle would begin again.”
What is needed, Kerschensteiner said, “is a serious commitment to mental health treatment by the Legislature in the DOC budget.”
Wisdom’s draft report calls for a number of specific changes in how Wisconsin uses segregation, including limiting stays to a maximum of 15 days, increasing staff crisis intervention training, providing “a clear and structured path” for inmates to earn their way out of segregation and making sure that inmates are never released directly from segregation into the community.
The memo by Wall does not go into specifics regarding the changes he is seeking, other than its references to corrective and rehabilitative programming. But Staab suggested the changes will fall short of what the DOC’s critics would like to see: “For serious cases the maximum penalties have not changed.”
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.