Illinois: Solitary Confinement Could Be Reduced At State Prisons

Illinois will limit solitary confinement at all state prisons if a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. La Shawn Ford becomes law. Last week, the legislation received the approval of a House committee. However, it is now awaiting a vote by the full chamber. Although HB5417 has received stark criticism, its supporters believe it is necessary to protect human rights.

The bill, which is published on the Illinois General Assembly website, states the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act was designed to ensure "that a committed person shall not be placed in isolated confinement unless there is reasonable cause to believe that the committed person would create a substantial risk of immediate serious harm to himself, herself, or another..."

To prove necessity, Illinois inmates must be personally evaluated by a licensed psychiatrist, osteopath, or a clinical psychologist, within two hours of emergency confinement.

If passed, Illinois' solitary confinement will also be reduced to 20 hours per day, with each inmate spending at least four hours outside their cell.

ABC News reports Illinois has more than 1,800 inmates in solitary confinement at this time, which is approximately 4 percent of the state's total prison population. Although many are segregated for rule violations, some are isolated for their own safety.

In most states, inmates placed in solitary confinement are kept in a single cell for as many as 23 hours each day. Although they are usually provided with a bed, sink, and toilet, the inmates are forbidden from direct communication with other human beings.

PBS reports "it's not unusual for inmates to spend years at a time in solitary." Although supporters of the practice argue it is necessary to assure the safety of corrections officers and other inmates, opponents argue it is a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

One of the earliest studies exploring the implications of solitary confinement was conducted by University of Wisconsin psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1950s.

To conduct his research, Harlow isolated rhesus monkeys in a device called "the pit of despair." In most cases, the monkeys appeared "profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves" within a few weeks.

Although a majority of the monkeys readjusted at some point, the minds of the monkeys who spent more than 12 months in solitary confinement were determined to be "obliterated."

Similar studies using humans are rare. However, a group of male graduate students were paid to participate in a sensory deprivation experiment in 1951 at McGill University.

Although the researchers sought to observe the students' behavior over a period of six weeks, the participants all dropped out of the study within one week.

In recent years, Stuart Grassian, a former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, studied inmates in solitary confinement. During his research, Grassian determined many inmates were afflicted with a profound psychiatric syndrome.

The symptoms, which were observed in approximately 30 percent of solitary confinement inmates, included "hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli... difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory [loss of] the ability to maintain a state of alertness... crippling obsessions."

Solitary confinement in Illinois, and every other state, is meant to ensure prisoners are safe. However, research has shown inmates who are isolated are at a higher risk for suicide. There is also concern that some prisoners placed in solitary confinement are already mentally ill, and are therefore at a higher risk for having a mental breakdown.

WSFA reports Department of Corrections chief of operations Mike Atchison admitted Illinois' solitary confinement rules need an overhaul. However, he said, "There are aspects, quite a few aspects of the bill, that seriously diminish the department's ability to separate the most violent offenders from the general population."

Atchison said he and his colleagues are working on a solution, which will reduce solitary confinement in Illinois prisons without increasing safety concerns.

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