Lawmakers consider restrictions on using solitary confinement in prisons

By: - May 24, 2023 5:34 am
Prisoner on cot in cell

“There is a saying in the solitary survivor community that if you didn’t have a mental illness when you went into solitary you came out with one,” said Nick Shepack of the advocacy group Return Strong. (Darrin Klimek/Getty Images)

Nevada lawmakers are reconsidering limits on how state prisons use solitary confinement after similar legislation failed to pass during the 2021 legislative session.

The bill, which defines “segregation” or “solitary confinement” as more than 22 consecutive hours in a cell, would limit the use to 15 consecutive days, after which a multidisciplinary treatment team, including a mental health clinician, would conduct a review to determine where to place the inmate. 

Senate Bill 307, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Pat Spearman, requires the department to implement the “least restrictive manner” when separating inmates from the general population, and doing so for the “shortest period of time safely as possible.”

“This type of segregation for prisoners is especially detrimental for those with mental illnesses,” Spearman said. “We’re not doing any justice by them by forcing them into this kind of situation but we are also virtually ensuring their mental health will suffer from this treatment.”

The Nevada Department of Corrections would be restricted from placing a person in solitary who is 90 days from their release. 

Nick Shepack, the board chair of the prison advocacy group Return Strong and member of Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement, said research has shown releasing people “straight from solitary to the community” makes the transition back into society “often nearly impossible.” 

“There is a saying in the solitary survivor community that if you didn’t have a mental illness when you went into solitary you came out with one,” Shepack said. “When we place people with severe mental illness in solitary confinement, countless studies show it exacerbates that mental illness. This hinders rehabilitation.”

The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 13, and was sent to the Senate Finance Committee. 

An early fiscal note from NDOC said having a “treatment team,” which include a psychologist,  at each facility would mean hiring 31 “non-custody” staff and cost an estimated $12 million over the biennium. 

NDOC Director James Dzurenda, who testified in neutral at the first bill hearing, told lawmakers that NDOC doesn’t “have any social workers in the agency.”

However, he said in April that allowing for telemedicine or video conferencing rather than in-person evaluation would alleviate the cost, and dropped the fiscal note to zero.

Dzurenda said the use of solitary and disciplinary segregation wasn’t “black and white.”

In some cases, he said, an evaluation of an inmate who could be released from solitary shows they are “homicidal” and shouldn’t be released from segregation. 

In other instances, he said people seek segregation out of fear they could be attacked by other inmates. 

Dzurenda, who worked with Spearman and the advocacy groups to amend the bill, later told lawmakers most of his concerns had been addressed, including pushing back the effective date from July 1, 2023 to Jan. 1, 2024. 

The bill is scheduled to be heard by Senate Finance on Wednesday morning.

Lilith Baran, the policy director of the ACLU of Nevada, said there is no prison policy that has been studied more than solitary confinement. 

“The research has overwhelmingly displayed that solitary confinement takes an immense toll on a person’s mental, emotional and physical well being,” she said. “It causes irreversible neurological damage.”

A 2021 report from the Liman Center at Yale University analyzing prison data from 2018 through 2020 showed Nevada housed 1,059 people in “restrictive housing,” about 10% of its population at the time.

Baran said that “40% of trans people are in solitary confinement.” Lawmakers are also considering legislation requiring formal policies for the housing for trans and gender diverse incarcerated individuals.  

The report found 57 people had been in restrictive housing more than 10 years. 

Baran said the data, which was reported by NDOC, showed that 387 people were confined for administrative reasons, 230 for safety, 99 for punishment and 274 for personal choice. 

“The effect of solitary will cause the individuals to feel uncomfortable around other individuals after an extreme period of isolation,” she said, explaining the personal choice. “They are more jumpy, scared at the sound of keys or slamming doors because they’ve experienced extreme trauma.” 

Dzurenda told lawmakers “disciplinary segregation” is currently restricted to 30 days. 

“While it’s true a disciplinary sanction is a 30 day max … people will sit in solitary confinement waiting for their disciplinary hearing,” Shepack said. “People will get one sanction followed by another sanction followed by another extending that 30 day period at times indefinitely.”

Current policy requires corrections officers tour the disciplinary segregation units every 15 minutes to check on inmates, but there aren’t medical or mental health workers observing people. 

“There is no medical or mental health tour, which I think there should be for those individuals in segregation,” he said. 

Lawmakers passed legislation in 2017 that put some restrictions on the practice. 

Spearman brought legislation in 2021 to strengthen regulations and at the time said there was “virtually no data” on how the law was implemented, but the bill died. 

Shepack said the state, which also received recommendations from the Vera Institute of Justice in 2019, was headed in the right direction. But those recommendations were never implemented, he said. 

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.