Statement on Illinois' Use of Solitary Confinement

As the need for criminal justice and prison reform in Illinois has again become the subject of statewide conversation and political action, the John Howard Association of Illinois (JHA) urges citizens, policymakers and administrators to be specific and pragmatic regarding the goals and practices of incarceration. As the State’s only independent prison watchdog, JHA has been monitoring the policies, practices, and experiences of incarceration for over a century.

We believe that an essential part of respecting human dignity entails allowing all people, even individuals with little chance of returning to free society, the opportunity to improve their situation. This is unachievable through prolonged isolation. We reiterate that use of isolation should be strictly circumscribed with all prisoners and used cautiously, for minimal periods of time, and only when required to preserve safety.

Without question isolation has been overused and done substantial harm to people in Illinois’ correctional facilities. The high costs of isolation extend beyond prison walls. Isolation leads to increased institutional violence, exacerbation of prisoners’ healthcare issues, litigation, extended prison stays due to individuals acting out while in isolation, and heightened recidivism.

JHA believes that new policies and clear standards are needed to reduce the use of isolation in Illinois prisons. To have any chance of success, reform of policies and standards must be developed in conversation with the correctional administrators, staff, state and local officials charged with their implementation, as well as experts from disciplines invested in this issue.

Two complex questions are at the forefront of the discussion of “solitary confinement”: 1) what constitutes isolation; and 2) what should be the limits to its use? Before meaningful reform can be achieved, there must be clearer definitions and greater consensus on these issues.

The first consideration—defining isolation—brings up several questions. What about isolation separates the discussion from general issues regarding humane treatment of all prisoners? What physical and social conditions should trigger greater concern and protection? Some of the debate around this issue focuses on vastly varying physical cell designs or an individual inmate’s classification. Inmates may be isolated for the safety of themselves or others, for medical or disciplinary reasons, it may be voluntary or involuntary. These factors matter. Given variations in environments and individuals, naturally there will be differences of experiences and impacts. It can be difficult to determine isolation status without observing the cell, and finding out about who is housed within and why, as well as what access they have to resources or privileges. Further, these conditions are often not fixed but in flux based on staffing levels and available financial resources.

Given the various factors at play, JHA follows the United Nations and the United States Department of Justice in defining isolation foremost as confinement to a cell for more than 22 hours a day. We advocate limiting prolonged use of such isolation.

Several thousand Illinois inmates are confined to cells more than 22 hours a day and meet this definition. There are nearly 2,000 inmates in segregation in the Illinois Department of Corrections—hundreds of whom are serving segregation terms of more than a year—and their only out-of-cell time mandated in the Illinois Administrative Code is five hours a week. Further, maximum-security, protective custody, and reception inmates commonly are confined to cells for more than 22 hours.

To diminish use of isolation, Illinois must increase the minimum out-of-cell standards and positive activity for all inmates, as well as move inmates out of restrictive statuses more efficiently. The ability to physically accomplish this within Illinois’ prisons relies on an inmate population reduction. Raising minimum standards and increasing rehabilitative opportunities for all inmates in turn will help create the possibility of additional behavioral management tools, other than use of isolation, such as offering or restricting privileges.

The second issue related to solitary confinement is the question of appropriate use of isolation; who can be subject to isolation and for how long? Are there particular classes of people who should not ever be subject to isolation regardless of their status or actions? JHA generally encourages adopting uniform rules to aid swift and certain application. However, certain special populations, such as juveniles and individuals suffering from serious healthcare issues, are universally recognized as requiring distinct rules and ideally specialized staff. Determinations for continued isolation should always be based on an individualized assessment. Inherent in these considerations is the principle that all inmates should always be treated with dignity and in compliance with their constitutional, procedural, and human rights. This uniformity is preferable to creating numerous unnecessary carve outs for additional protections within prison populations that may be difficult for inmates and staff to understand or implement with appropriate privacy considerations.

JHA believes that just as there is a point of diminishing returns in using prison to manage crime, there is a tipping point at which prolonged isolation for any reason is inhumane. Most experts suggest imposing baseline limits for use of isolation at 15 or 30 consecutive days. After this point, isolation, or significant limitations of out-of-cell activity, should be minimized, though other privileges may continue to be limited. Success should be redefined as effectively, safely, moving inmates into the least restrictive setting required. This also represents a substantial shift in correctional practice that is just beginning to gain traction in the United States. We know we cannot rely on isolation or incapacitation as our only answer to crime and anti-social behavior.

Just as generally increasing out-of-cell activity and creating incentives will naturally diminish use of isolation, reducing and rightsizing the maximum consequences for disciplinary infractions will greatly reduce the number of inmates in isolation and lead to more fair and rational outcomes. If a person can receive more than 30 days in segregation for a minor infraction, such as having too many envelopes in his cell, it defies credibility to believe that a more serious infraction, like inflicting serious or lethal physical harm on someone, can be managed with a maximum 30-day segregation stay. Where other states have acted to reserve isolation for safety purposes, they have seen significant segregation reduction, as well as positive impacts on facility management and culture. This is the direction that our country and the rest of the world are heading, Illinois must make a choice. We can either lead, by making changes to isolation policies and practices from within our correctional system, or we can fail to take charge and have change dictated to us by outside actors and litigation.

Ultimately correctional best practices require treatment plans for inmates that define goals and permit inmates greater opportunity to affect their own outcomes. Illinois must work towards best practice. Meanwhile, insofar as best practices remain outside of Illinois’ current ability to achieve due to overcrowding, lack of appropriate staff, training, physical space, assessment tools, and budgetary constraints, state actors must seek to change the policies and practices of isolation relying on common sense improvements and basic principles of humane treatment, including:

1. Minimizing the number of individuals who are unintentionally isolated through lack of out-of-cell opportunity for non-disciplinary statuses;

2. Reducing the number of people who are isolated based on outdated ineffective notions of appropriate punishment and behavioral management; and

3. Accurately and thoroughly documenting the use of isolation and making this information publicly available in order to ensure transparency.

Effective reform cannot be achieved without thorough consideration of the complexities of correctional operations, as well as the physical and fiscal realities of conditions on the ground in Illinois’ prisons. Any reform that proposes to reduce isolation without consideration of the practical realities and factual limitations on Illinois’ prison system—operationally, physically, fiscally, and politically—is destined to fail. Successful reform of isolation practices requires collaboration among multiple stakeholders. It also requires us to define with greater clarity the harm that we wish to limit, the goals that we want to achieve, and the resources at our disposal to achieve these goals.

Contact: Jennifer Vollen-Katz
Executive Director, John Howard Association of Illinois
PH: (312) 291-9555

Elliana Given2016