Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A settlement between the Department of Justice and a Mississippi jail system marks the beginning of the end of solitary confinement.
On June 23, the U.S. Department of Justice sealed a deal with the Hinds County Detention Center and sheriff’s office in Mississippi to making sweeping changes to the county’s jail system. The new reforms focus on how to identify and treat mentally ill inmates and on reducing the time people can be detained at the jail. While this is happening in a small county in the Deep South, what makes these reforms monumental is that they seem to be signaling the dawn of a post-solitary-confinement era.
The stipulations in the Hinds County agreement are plentiful, but the new rules around segregated housing—often called solitary confinement—are worth noting. It’s in these rules that it appears that law enforcement officials are finally owning up to the harmful mental effects that solitary confinement has on prisoners. The agreement, in fact, states directly that “Segregation must be presumed contraindicated for prisoners with serious mental illness.”
“Contraindicated”—that’s the word doctors use when prohibiting a certain medication when they know that it will only worsen a patient’s health. We know from the story of Kalief Browder at Rikers Island, and many others like him, that solitary has worsened the mental health of people who didn’t have mental problems to begin with.
Judging by this settlement with the Hinds County Detention Center, jail officials now have to almost completely redo how they’ve historically enforced solitary confinement. Before, it seems that the detained were thrown in isolated cells at whim, no matter how sick or young they were. The Justice Department found as much in its investigation last year into the detention center:
We are especially concerned about the Jail’s harsh and highly restrictive treatment of prisoners with disabilities and juveniles. The Jail has been routinely placing prisoners with behavioral issues and apparent symptoms of mental illness in segregation cells located in the cramped booking area. The cells thus serve as both mental health observation cells and disciplinary cells. Even in good circumstances, booking cells are not well-designed for long-term prisoner housing. They provide little space or light, and it is harder to provide any prisoners locked in these cells with proper supervision and programs than if they were housed in larger housing units. They are especially inappropriate for the routine housing of persons with serious mental illness, who may deteriorate or act out in response to being isolated in and mistreated, which can lead to a further cycle of abusive discipline.
During their investigation, DOJ officials found a deaf inmate, who also couldn’t speak, in one of these isolated cells, which had a “reeking toilet” from broken plumbing, and no windows. “He had been living in such conditions for nearly three years.” [Bold and italic by DOJ.]
The new court-enforced rules for the Hinds County jail seeks to ameliorate such conditions with the following safeguards:
- All decisions to place a prisoner with serious mental illness in segregation must include the input of a Qualified Mental Health Professional who has conducted a face-to-face evaluation of the prisoner in a confidential setting. The health professional must be familiar with the prisoner’s clinical history and must consider that when making recommendations about whether or not to place the inmate in solitary.
- If an inmate with a mental health history is placed in isolation, they must be screened by a qualified mental-health professional within 24 hours to determine if they have serious mental illness. If that determination is made—or if any “other acute mental health contraindications to segregation” are found—the inmate must be removed from solitary confinement, except in a few emergency circumstances, such as a riot.
- Any exceptional circumstances found to override the removal from solitary confinement must be documented and include a “comprehensive interdisciplinary review” before signing off.
- Inmates with serious mental illness who are placed in segregated cells must be offered “a heightened level of care” that includes daily visits from a health professional and weekly face-to-face, out-of-cell therapy sessions.
Even in situations where a person who didn’t have symptoms of serious mental illness when first placed in isolation, but has since developed them, they must now be referred for mental health treatment. And a mental-health professional must evaluate all inmates currently being held in long-term segregation for mental illness problems within 30 days of the signing of the new jail-reform agreement.
As for youth inmates, they can no longer be disciplined with long-term isolation at all. This is a sea-change in solitary-confinement rules.
The settlement also puts an end to detaining people indefinitely when no official charges have been filed against them, or for failing to pay court fines if the individual can’t afford to do so. Courts must assess a person’s ability to pay fines at sentencing, and that assessment must be documented. Absent that documentation, “No person shall be incarcerated in the Jail for failure to pay fines or fees,” reads the agreement.
This is the new standard for local courts, as spelled out in a letter sent from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Deputy Vanita Gupta to local courts across the U.S. That letter clarified for courts that jailing people for failing to pay fines they can’t afford may be unconstitutional. But the Hinds County agreement is one of the first to make it an actual court-enforced policy.
The Justice Department also recently hammered out new guidelines around segregated housing in jails, which include among its primary principles:
- Inmates should be housed in the least restrictive setting necessary to ensure their own safety, as well as the safety of staff, other inmates, and the public.
- Correctional systems should always be able to clearly articulate the specific reason(s) for an inmate’s placement and retention in restrictive housing. The reason(s) should be supported by objective evidence. Inmates should remain in restrictive housing for no longer than necessary to address the specific reason(s) for placement.
- Absent a compelling reason, prison inmates should not be released directly from restrictive housing to the community.
- Correctional systems should seek ways to increase the minimum amount of time that inmates in restrictive housing spend outside their cells and to offer enhanced in-cell opportunities. Out-of-cell time should include opportunities for recreation, education, clinically appropriate treatment therapies, skill-building, and social interaction with staff and other inmates.
Much of this is codified in the Hinds County Detention Center settlement, which likely won’t be the last of its kind: DOJ also just took control of the local jail in New Orleans, which it had flagged for many of the same problems found in Hinds County. Given the many lawsuits currently in rotation around debtors-prison policies and solitary confinement, more settlements are sure to come.
The director of the National Institute of Corrections, Jim Cosby, recently spoke about the turning tide on jail policies, saying that the U.S.’s leading role in incarceration rates is “not an accolade … that we want to continue in the future.”
“The literature demonstrates we can safely maintain more individuals in the community than we presently are, eliminating the collateral consequences of incarceration,” said Cosby. “This is a better approach to criminal justice issues and better overall for our communities.”