PROVIDENCE — On Tuesday, March 21, the Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee met to discuss SB0617, known as the Solitary Confinement Reform Act.
Proposed in the Senate on March 7, the bill is sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Acosta, District 16 (Central Falls). The bill seeks to reform some of the practices surrounding the use of solitary confinement among prisoners, to prevent abuse and inordinate punishment.
According to the bill, solitary confinement can only be used on prisoners as a result of circumstances that “pose a clear and direct threat to the safety of persons or to the safe and secure operation of the facility,” and only if there are no alternatives to such measures.
The bill goes on to state that the forms of solitary confinement to be used are to be the “least constrictive conditions possible,” and are only to be used “for the shortest time possible.”
Written testimony in support of the bill was presented by Father Bernard A. Healey, J.C.L., S.T.L, director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference.
In his testimony, Father Healey quoted from a 2014 address by Pope Francis in which he stated that human dignity cannot be undermined for any reason, “even should it serve some social utility.” It is for this reason that torture, according to the traditional teachings of the Catholic faith, is never morally acceptable.
Pope Francis, in this same address, further went on to equate the use of solitary confinement with torture.
Father Healey noted how some churchmen have followed a similar line of reasoning, citing Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York’s recent support for the outright abolishment of solitary confinement.
Building on this, Father Healey noted that, although the Church does not oppose solitary confinement as such, it does oppose the excessive use of this method of punishment, noting how the Catholic view on justice centers on helping to bring healing and rebuilding to victims and communities harmed by crime, and helping prisoners to reenter into society as law abiding citizens.
“The Catholic Church has long opposed the overuse of segregated confinement,” Father Healey noted, going on to note that “the criminal justice system should seek justice and mercy, emphasizing restoring communities, victims and offenders” and calling an over reliance on solitary confinement a “regressive policy.”
To this end, the bill proposes that those in solitary confinement have access to personal belongings, legal assistance, food and beverages, access to work programs or education, and medical or mental health services to an extent equal to that of those not in solitary confinement. These services or entitlements are to be withheld only if providing them would serve a greater risk to the incarcerated person, their fellow inmates, or those who run the prison facility, but are to be returned once the risk has subsided.
The deprivation of these entitlements is to be reviewed on a regular basis by the warden together with a mental health professional, who will take into account the impact of this on the mental or physical health of the inmate. Any deprivation of these entitlements beyond a period of 30 days also requires the explicit permission of the Director of Corrections.
The bill further specifies that different infractions can bring about different lengths of solitary confinement, stating, for example, that while some infractions can bring upwards of 60 days in solitary confinement, solitary confinement for a single violation of a disciplinary rule put forward by the prison shall not exceed 15 days, and a prisoner cannot be subject to solitary confinement for more than 30 days over the course of a 60-day period as a result of disciplinary infractions.
The proposed bill also places a strong emphasis on preserving the mental and physical health of the inmate. After the first 72 hours of confinement, the prisoner is to be visited by a mental health or medical professional, something that is then to occur every 14 days after that.
The bill also prohibits any prisoner under the age of 22 or over the age of 60, as well as members of what it labels “vulnerable groups” (those with persistent mental health or developmental issues, pregnant women, or those with auditory or visual issues) from being subject to solitary confinement.
The prisoner in question is also afforded the right to make their case before the oversight committee that determines under what circumstances inmates are to receive solitary confinement and is to be afforded the same opportunity in particularly dire offenses that may call for solitary confinement of more than 60 days or the removal of any entitlements for more than 30 days.
Depending on the reasons for solitary confinement, prisoners subject to such punishments are to be allowed between two and four hours per day outside of the confinement, and the Department of Corrections is also required to keep extensive records on relevant statistical information pertaining to solitary confinement and publish and update such information in a public forum.
During his testimony, Sen. Acosta noted that many of these stipulations are already used by Rhode Island prisons, and that the purpose of this bill would be to codify these practices as law.
Natalia Freelander, a lawyer for the Rhode Island Center for Justice, notes that the necessity of the bill is born out of what are perceived as overly strict measures taken against prisoners sentenced to solitary confinement.
One example she noted was how some Rhode Island prisons can sentence prisoners to solitary confinement for up to 365 days for even a single non-violent disciplinary infraction, with only one hour out of their cell per day and severe limitations on interactions with loved ones.
Freelander spoke to potential concerns related to the loosening of solitary confinement restrictions.
“What this bill would do is codify certain basic minimum entitlements for those incarcerated at the ACI who might present a risk to security….It wouldn’t limit the ability of the DOC to penalize people who break prison rules,” she said.
Rather, the bill was born out of a desire to care for the mental health of prisoners and better facilitate their reentry into mainstream society. The minimum of 4 hours out of prison, she noted as an example, is “the very basic minimum that research has shown over and over is necessary to be a functioning member of society who has a chance at rehabilitation and getting back out into the general population.”
She also noted that another benefit of the bill is that it creates consistency within the prison system, standardizing the minimum entitlements and services prisoners have access to even amidst changes in prison administration or leadership in those government agencies that regulate prison affairs.
Others were skeptical of the bill.
Richard Ferurccio, a correctional officer and the president of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, asserted that the measures taken in the bill would reduce accountability to “create chaos” in the prison systems.
The bill was held for further study.
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