Gabe Newland: Reduce the use of solitary confinement in Michigan prisons

From guest writer Gabe Newland in the Detroit Free Press, Feb. 1st 2013:

Gov. Rick Snyder can save lives and money by adopting Mississippi’s recent prison reforms.

Remember solitary confinement — that expensive thing the Michigan Department of Corrections does with your tax dollars? They lock almost 1,000 prisoners — hundreds of them mentally ill — inside isolated segregation cells. For days and months and years, prisoners spend 23 hours per day in these cramped cubes. Alone. Where silence screams and thoughts become voices.

Sometimes people die. Timothy Souders, a mentally ill prisoner serving one to four years, spent the last four days of his life strapped to a steel bed until he died of thirst. He was naked, soaked in his own urine.

Gov. Snyder can fix this.

Only six years ago, Mississippi held almost 1,300 prisoners in long-term segregation. Cells were like ovens, and psychotic prisoners screamed through the night. Violence spread. In response, Mississippi tried something different: It reduced its solitary population by 85%. Violence plummeted, behavior improved, and Mississippi saved more than $5 million per year.

How did Mississippi do it? Two key components:

• First, the state overhauled its classification system, which determines where prisoners go — minimum, medium or maximum security. Instead of isolating the worst of the worst, they’d been isolating prisoners they were mad at. And that’s expensive.

A good classification system rewards good behavior; you might move from maximum to medium security. In Mississippi, they knew how to punish but forgot to reward. And they’ve now learned an important lesson: One-way ratchets only ratchet up costs. More solitary, more money.

• Second, Mississippi began diverting mentally ill prisoners out of solitary and into mental health units. Prisoners who needed treatment got it, not punishment. And that’s smart. Isolated prisoners are more likely to hurt themselves, and they’re more likely to hurt others when released. Anti-social isolation produces anti-social behavior.

In the end, Mississippi successfully reduced the number of prisoners in isolation to about 300. That saved money, jobs and lives.

Read the rest here: http://www.freep.com/article/20130201/OPINION05/302010046/Gabe-Newland-Reduce-the-use-of-solitary-confinement-in-Michigan-prisons

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