Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune / Landov

Illinois prisons slammed for lengthy solitary terms, lack of transparency

Class action suit says use of solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment

CREST HILL, Illinois — When Jerome Jones was placed in solitary confinement in 2013 at the Lawrence Correctional Center, no one told him why. In fact, he says he wasn’t given a reason until six months after the fact — when officials alleged at an administrative hearing that it was because of his gang associations. But Jones, who is currently still being held in solitary, says he is not a gang member.

Douglas Coleman, who is incarcerated at the Stateville Correctional Center, filed 15 grievances after being held in solitary confinement for 8 months last year. He was placed in solitary for having alcohol in his cell, which Coleman said belonged to his cellmate. According to Coleman, his cell was infested with cockroaches and rodents, and he sometimes found insects and mice in his food. He says he was consistently denied basic necessities such as showers, medical treatment and a wheelchair that is imperative for his mobility.

These testimonials are from a class-action lawsuit Jones and Coleman, among other current and former inmates, have filed against the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) arguing that the department’s use of solitary confinement violates the Eighth and 14th Amendments — that it amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and does not afford them equal protection as citizens. The Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) filed the lawsuit on June 25, 2015, along with Winston and Strawn, LLP. 

Solitary confinement is generally defined as 23-24 hours in a cell, in isolation. In Illinois, where their solitary confinement units are called “administrative detention, disciplinary segregation and investigative status,” 2,500 people were being held in solitary in June, 2013, according to the lawsuit. The state has 3,000 segregation beds, in total. Vicente Rodriguez, who was held in solitary confinement in both Tamms Correctional Center and Stateville Correctional Center, described a segregation cell to Al Jazeera as a freezing, eight by 12 foot cell with concrete beds and an always-humming light.

According to the lawsuit, most people sentenced to solitary confinement are there for minor or nonviolent infractions including 1,500 sentenced for “unauthorized movement” in 2013, as well as 1,300 sentenced for “insolence,” which is defined as: “talking, touching, gesturing, or other behavior that harasses, annoys, or shows disrespect,” by Illinois's Administrative Code. Other infractions that can land you in solitary confinement can be as serious as assaulting another individual and as minor as circulating an unauthorized petition or filing a lawsuit a court deemed to be frivolous.

Furthermore, the UPLC argues that too many inmates are being held in solitary, in dire conditions, for an exorbitant amount of time. They found that, in June 2013, 680 people in solitary had been held there for more than a year and 218 have been held in solitary for more than a decade.

There is no legal limit to how long someone can be held in solitary confinement in Illinois. The longest sentence one can get is “indefinite.” However, most sentences (which are usually determined in the Adjustment Committee) are for a year or less. According to the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, the average time spent in solitary confinement in 2008 was 59 days. Multiple sentences are often accumulated, resulting in long stays in solitary for minor infractions or violations.

LGBT people incarcerated by IDOC say that many times they are put in segregation because of their sexual orientation or gender presentation. “It’s very easy to be thrown in segregation for merely walking in a way an officer finds too sissylike,” an inmate who remained anonymous told Black and Pink Chicago, a support group for LBGT individuals in prison. “I’ve been thrown in segregation because an officer felt my fingernails were too long and girlie. My friend was thrown in segregation cause her eyes were lined.”

The litigation came after the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice on May 4 agreed to a settlement with the ACLU to change the solitary practices in their juvenile facilities. The changes include an end to punitive isolation, a minimum of eight hours out-of-cell time each day and maintaining both mental health treatment and education programs. These changes do not apply to juvenile inmates in adult prisons.

The UPLC recommends an overhaul of how the IDOC treats solitary confinement, including limiting the time one can be placed in solitary confinement — for even serious criminal infractions, no more than 30 days — banning prisoners with serious mental health issues from long-term segregation, adding a review process every 30 days, and increasing transparency around and raising the bar on the type of infractions that result in solitary confinement. IDOC spokesperson Nicole Wilson said by email that the department had “no comment on the pending litigation.”

Mental health impact

In 2015 alone, more than 100 people incarcerated by the IDOC reached out to the Uptown People’s Law Center regarding their experience in solitary confinement. “No one I know has come out of long term isolation without being severely mentally injured and most people have had serious effects on their health and well being,” said Alan Mills, the Executive Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center.

Crystal Stoneburner, who is incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center, told the Uptown People's Law Center in July: “[Solitary] rips your spirit apart. You wish you were dead. You have nightmares. You want to see your family and they don't let you, don't let you have phone calls. Sometimes they throw away your letters. When you say you're gonna hurt yourself they taunt you and laugh at you.”

Solitary confinement has been found to cause mental health issues including, but not limited to, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), paranoia, depression, suicidal thoughts and night terrors.

Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has evaluated the mental health of over 200 prisoners, found that those held in solitary were likely to develop a “specific psychiatric syndrome” rarely found elsewhere that involved hyperresponsivity to external stimuli, perceptual distortions, illusions, panic attacks, hallucination, difficulty with thinking concentration and memory, intrusive obsessional thoughts, paranoia, and problems with impulse control.

The lawsuit argues that these stark mental health effects and the fact that solitary confinement for over 15 days is considered torture by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture is evidence that the use of solitary confinement in Illinois amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. 

Rodriguez, who was incarcerated for 25 years, spent more than 12 years in solitary in both Tamms (closed in 2013) and Stateville Correctional Center. He was placed in solitary for multiple infractions ranging from talking back at guards to fighting. Rodriguez said he was not given a chance to defend himself at a hearing.

Incarcerated in an adult prison since he was 16, Rodriguez was released in 2011, but his experiences still haunt him. When he was first placed in segregation, he said he couldn’t sleep for two weeks. He described the experience as “mentally abusive” and said he felt restless, stressed, and anxious. After his experience in solitary confinement, Rodriguez was diagnosed with PTSD and says he now takes multiple medications to treat his depression and anxiety. He still has trouble in being in crowded areas. Because of his symptoms, Rodriguez has struggled to find and keep a job. 

The lawsuit comes at time when other states have been reconsidering solitary confinement. At least 20 states have added restrictions on its use to date. In January, 2015, the New York City Board of Correction  limited the use of solitary confinement in jails to 30 days coupled with a mandatory 7 days in general population if there are multiple solitary sentences. In 2013, Mississippi, in response to an ACLU lawsuit, limited solitary confinement to serious infractions that pose a threat to the jail, resulting in the state’s 75 percent decrease in their solitary confinement population.

Rodriguez, who is not named in the lawsuit against the IDOC, said he nevertheless hoped it would the use of indefinite terms of isolation, which he said result in “permanent damage.”

“What mindset are you developing in him? You’re going to develop in him something that’s … rage-filled and when he gets out that rage is going to come out. It’s going to be expressed. That’s what you don’t want,” Rodriguez asserted. “These are all time bombs.”

Solitary as a control tactic

“Solitary has been used for decades and continues to be used today for anybody to make any sort of move to stand up for their own selves or to try to better the system as a whole. Those guys are always sent out to solitary,” Mills of UPLC said. Illinois’s Administrative Code specifically mentions hunger strikes and work stoppages and classifies them as “dangerous disturbances” on par with taking a person hostage. They are considered a major offense carrying the maximum determinate segregation penalty allowed for any one offense: one year. 

According to Mills, this practice serves two functions: isolating individuals makes it difficult to organize prisoners to protest for better conditions and it’s also used as an example and a warning to other inmates. Rodriguez said prisoners who tried to bring about class-action lawsuits or petitions were often sentenced to segregation, often accused of “disrupting the peace” or “insolence.”

“It really makes it extraordinary difficult for prisoners to organize together to have a voice and make their concerns known. That kind of thing is squashed right away,” Mills said. 

Despite the odds, last year more than a dozen people held in segregation at Menard Correctional Center, a state prison in Illinois, staged a month-long hunger strike against the solitary conditions they were being subjected to. Their demands were similar to some of the recommendations in UPLC’s lawsuit including: give notice as to why an inmate was placed in solitary, give a clear path out of solitary confinement and allow the inmate to defend his position in solitary hearings

“[Right now], we have a system that is designed to break people,” Mills said.

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