Solitary Confinement Reform Goes to the Legislature

Legislative Bill 739 was introduced in the unicameral by Senators Tony Vargas and Justin Wayne in late January. The legislative bill aims to change procedures and requirements for use of restrictive housing of inmates in Nebraska prison systems. LB 739 was placed with six other measures into one omnibus bill by the Judiciary Committee, and advanced to the floor of the legislature as one prison reform bill this Friday, May 10. It consists of provisions to address such issues as cellphones in prisons, discretion for judges when dealing with incompetent defendants, intensive probation, and restrictive housing known as solitary confinement.

Lincoln Journal Star reports that LB 739 “would ensure vulnerable inmates, including those with serious mental illness, are prohibited from restrictive housing. Most recent numbers show there are 322 inmates in restrictive housing, out of 5,410 inmates housed in the state's prisons and 106 in county jails. Some have been in restrictive housing more than a year, and some more than two years.”

The attached bills now ride on LB 686 sponsored by Sen. Steve Lathrop, chair of the Judiciary committee. Solitary confinement is a harmful practice that is proven to pose significant risk of serious psychological harm to inmates, as indicated by NOISE maker Paul Feilmann.

Points by Paul Feilmann

A compilation of information can be found here.

1. The severe overcrowding of Nebraska State Prison in Tecumseh has had five residents murdered and several staff assaults along with resident suicides in the past five years. This overcrowding leads to 300-400 residents being put into solitary confinement, leading to exacerbated mental illness and many harmful and dangerous side effects.

2. Staff who are underpaid and under resourced experience severe stress and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the experience of implementing solitary confinement and dealing with inmates suffering from mental health issues being exacerbated by solitary confinement.

3. Solitary confinement poses significant risk of serious psychological harm to inmates increasing the risk of mental pain and suffering, self harm, and suicide. Solitary confinement causes a range of psychological effects including anxiety, withdrawal, hypersensitivity, cognitive dysfunction hallucination, aggression, rage, paranoia, self mutilation and hopelessness. All of the symptoms are exacerbated for mentally ill inmates. (Information from Dr. Craig Haney, international expert on psychological effects of solitary confinement).

4. Dr. Haney, international expert on psychological effects of solitary confinement, has provided expert witness reports that depict Nebraska solitary confinement units as being some of the worst he has ever seen.

5. Solitary confinement is considered torture if used for more than 15 days by the United Nation’s 2015 Mandela rules. It is banned for inmates with mental or physical disabilities. Inmates in Nebraska usually spend much longer than 15 days in solitary.

6. The Episcopal Church 79th General Convention condemns prolonged solitary confinement as a form of torture.

7. Canada has banned the use of solitary confinement, and states such as Colorado and Maine have safely and significantly reduced solitary confinement use.

8. Cook County (Chicago, Illinois) sheriff states his jail has not put detainees in solitary confinement since May 2016. Instead, the county maintains a “special management unit” for detainees who resort to violence that keep inmates and staff safe while maintaining humanity for inmates. Other solutions do work.

Contact your senator (find them here: https://www.nebraskalegislature.gov/) to support LB 686 as a first step for limiting this harmful practice or to voice your opinion on the omnibus bill.

This update was compiled by Luis E. Jimenez.

Dawaune Hayes