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The Prison Complex

Thursday, Jun 25, 2015, 12:02 pm

New Lawsuit Alleges Systemic Abuse of Solitary Confinement in Illinois

By Dayton Martindale

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A 45-square-foot model of a typical cell at Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois. These cramped cells can be occupied by one or two prisoners, who spend up to 24 hours a day locked inside.   (Dayton Martindale)

Smaller than five by 10 feet, up to 24 hours a day, every day for months, years, even decades. This is the environment thousands of prisoners across the state of Illinois in solitary confinement are constricted to every day—but not for much longer, if a new lawsuit is successful.

On June 24, the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) and Winston & Strawn LLP announced a class action suit alleging that the Illinois Department of Corrections abuses solitary confinement and urging stricter compliance with national standards. At a press conference at the In These Times offices, UPLC Executive Director Alan Mills declared there are “too many people kept in isolation and solitary, kept there too long, put there for too little, kept in too awful conditions.”

Mills identified three currently incarcerated plaintiffs, but said his Chicago-based organization is “suing on behalf of all 2,300 people kept in solitary today.” He says nearly a third of these are serving sentences of a year or more, and roughly 10% are confined to solitary for over 10 years.

Mills was accompanied at the conference by five men who had each been in solitary for between five months and 23 years, and one woman with a brother currently in solitary. The former prisoners emphasized the deleterious effects of solitary confinement on mental health, noting that mentally ill prisoners are more likely to be placed in solitary, and confinement itself often leads to deteriorating mental health.

UPLC Prisoners’ Rights Coordinator Brian Nelson, who spent 23 years in solitary, says he paced 18 hours a day in his cell and needed multiple medications in order to sleep. Five years later, he is still too traumatized to ride a bus or subway, and when stressed sometimes sits in a small, dark closet in his basement.

Another component of UPLC’s claim is that prisoners are isolated for capricious reasons, with no real opportunity to defend themselves. “Insolence” or “disobeying a direct order” are common charges, the group claims, which can be leveled for as little as “rolling your eyes at a guard.”

For the purposes of the lawsuit, UPLC defines solitary as being locked in a cell for an average of at least 22 hours a day without “meaningful social contact.” Prisoners under disciplinary segregation are supposed to get one hour per day to exercise, but this is commonly only given on weekdays. In Illinois, the weekly exercise time is sometimes grouped all at once: six complete days locked up, then five hours in the yard.

The exercise yard is hardly a relief. UPLC reports that the exercise area allotted to individuals under solitary can be as little as twice their regular cell size.

The solitary confinement cells, which in Illinois can be 45 square feet, are often shared with a roommate. UPLC argues that any social benefits of cohousing are more than counteracted by the cramped conditions and utter lack of privacy.

The demands of the UPLC lawsuit are actually fairly lax in comparison to international standards. UN Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez has called for a complete ban on the use of solitary confinement for over 15 days. UPLC is not currently calling to abolish solitary confinement—“The law’s not there,” Mills admits—but their lawsuit aims to apply stricter standards on how long a person can be isolated, the conditions in which people are kept and the justifications the state can offer for punishing someone. A similar lawsuit is underway in New York, and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently voiced concern about the practice, saying “it will bring you to the edge of madness, sometimes to madness itself.”

The practice came to the United State in 1829, instituted by Quakers who believed that time alone would allow for reflection and repentance. Even then, it quickly became apparent that the practice served no rehabilitative function, only serving as a form of psychological torture. 186 years later, UPLC is asking Illinois to own up to what they say is this history of cruelty.

Dayton Martindale is an associate editor at In These Times, and a founding member of Symbiosis. His writing has appeared in In These Times, Earth Island Journal and The Next System Project. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.

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