STATE HOUSE – When Brandon Robinson worked as a porter at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in Cranston, it was his job to clean up after a suicide.
“When a suicide would occur, it was my job to clean the blood off the walls and untie the knots in the sheets of those who took their lives.
Individuals taking their own lives was a regular occurrence,” Robinson said. “They would be in solitary so long they would start hallucinating, seeing things that aren’t there. They just couldn’t cope.”
A new bill by Sen. Jonathon Acosta (D-Dist. 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket) and Rep. Leo Felix (D-Dist. 61, Pawtucket) (2023-S 0617) would establish an oversight committee to monitor the use of solitary confinement in Rhode Island.
The bill would also lay out clear guidelines for when solitary confinement could be used and when it couldn’t. The practice would be restricted to punishment for violent offences and prohibited, except in emergencies, for inmates with developmental or psychiatric disabilities and no one could be kept in solitary confinement for more than 22 hours each day.
The United Nations defines keeping inmates in solitary confinement for more than 22 hours a day as torture. Robinson and other former inmates say they were regularly kept alone in their cell for 23 or 24 hours a day.
“This bill is not about banning solitary confinement,” said Senator Acosta. “It’s about reforming the system to ensure accountability and ensure the practice is used as a last resort.”
Solitary confinement, also called restrictive housing, involves securing incarcerated individuals in a small cell, around eight by ten feet, without human contact.
Defenders of the practice say it is a necessary tool to maintain control in a difficult environment. By separating violent inmates from the general population, they argue, correctional officers can best keep inmates safe. And creating a disincentive to violent behavior, they say, is crucial to preventing fights.
But advocates argue that overusing solitary confinement is counterproductive and leads to more violence. They point to studies in states such as Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maine that all found lower reports of violent incidents after they restricted and regulated the use of solitary confinement.
“Solitary confinement is a cruel and ineffective approach to addressing violence in prisons and our communities,” said Representative Felix. “Studies show that prolonged isolation leads to severe psychological distress, particularly for individuals with serious mental illnesses, which can exacerbate the risk of violence. By limiting the use of this harmful practice, we can prioritize rehabilitation over punishment and, ultimately, create a safer society for all.”
Elisha Liberty, of Foster, says the system is often abused. Her sister, Charlene Liberty, had severe mental health issues and attempted suicide many times in solitary confinement. The case is the subject of a lawsuit by the RI ACLU.
“We need to have oversight to make sure correctional officers aren’t abusing their power,” Liberty said. “My sister was sick, she needed help. Locking her away with no human contact just made her deteriorate and led to her death.”
Robinson, who was raised and lives in Providence, served a fifteen-year sentence at the ACI and got out in 2019. He has since received his bachelor’s degree and is pursuing a master’s degree from Roger Williams University and organizing for reforms to how correctional officers use solitary confinement.
“I know there are stresses being a correctional officer, but they have no idea what it’s like being in solitary confinement. No idea,” he said. “When I was serving my time, I saw people who were violent who needed to be separated from the rest of the population. But I also saw people get put in solitary because their t-shirt wasn’t tucked in or they didn’t stand up fast enough at count. Right now, there’s no accountability, no regulations. A correctional officer having a bad day could literally torture you with no repercussions or oversight.”
Advocates also point to the fiscal costs of solitary confinement. Keeping an inmate at the high security center costs the state roughly $216,000 per year, according to the Department of Corrections 2021 annual report.
“The staff at the ACI have a hard job, I understand that” said Senator Acosta. “They’ve told me they care about this problem, too, and want to make improvements. We want to work together to reform this system, because all Rhode Islanders have rights.”