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After Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh toured the D.C. Jail this past summer, she was inspired to draft legislation that may improve conditions for inmates there, her spokesperson Kelly Whittier says. So Tuesday, the councilmember introduced the “Inmate Segregation Reduction Act of 2015,” which would place limitations on the District’s use of solitary confinement generally and as means of discipline.
As introduced, the legislation would require the D.C. Department of Corrections to perform regular mental-health assessments on those in segregated housing (that is, in cells separated from the rest of the population), create minimum out-of-cell time for solitary prisoners, restrict the use of solitary confinement “to only the most serious crimes,” and design a plan of alternatives to segregation such as group programs and incentives for good behavior. DOC facilities currently house more than 2,500 inmates and employ just over 900 people.
“While there are certainly a number of circumstances that warrant solitary confinement, we must also recognize and work to minimize the unintended effects that solitary confinement has on inmates–unwanted effects that may actually make an inmate more of a danger to the general public than they were prior to imprisonment,” Cheh said while introducing the bill, citing research showing that the use of solitary confinement is associated with an increase in mental-health problems, aggressive behavior, and recidivism-risk among inmates.
Under the bill, solitary confinement would only be used “for the briefest term and under the least restrictive conditions practicable” for the safety of the facility in question. It would also provide adult solitary prisoners with at least two hours per day “to engage in activities outside of the segregated housing unit” and juvenile solitary prisoners at least five hours per day. When such confinement were required, it would be limited to 60 days for Class I-offenders (those convicted for murder, arson, or sexual assault within the facility, for example) and 30 days for Class II-offenders (those convicted for extortion, threats, or even “disrespect” toward a prison employee, visitor, or volunteer).
Additionally, the legislation would compel DOC to compile a report for the D.C. Council on the use of segregated housing and to create a manual for families of incarcerated persons that would include information on facility operations and resources for returning citizens.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery