“Despair. Do you know what it is like to live in despair? To feel trapped, suffocated, like the walls are closing in for good?” wrote an incarcerated person from inside a segregation unit in Rhode Island. “To be buried alive and witness your own humanity escaping without your body. I sit in a cell where it’s so quiet you can literally hear your own heart beat.”
There is a growing movement among activists and lawmakers in Rhode Island to address the use of solitary confinement at the state’s main prison complex, the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) in Cranston — although the movement faces resistance from the Department of Corrections.
At the ACI, people held in “administrative segregation,” “close confinement,” and “disciplinary confinement” are segregated for at least 23 hours a day in 8 by 10 foot cells — and 24 hours a day for their first five days and throughout every weekend. Most are housed alone, while those in protective custody are doubled up with a cellmate.
“The adverse effects of 23/24 hour lockdown on one’s mental state is life altering,” one person currently held in segregation noted. “I’ve seen prisoners go insane, eat shit, drink piss, cut themselves… prisoners find themselves being punished due to their mental health issues and inability to cope with stress-filled, oppressive environments.”
Following pressure from lawmakers, the ACI released a snapshot of its population in segregation for March 14, 2016. On that day, 196 people — or 6.4 percent of the total prison population — were in segregation in Rhode Island, including 127 in disciplinary confinement, 26 in administrative confinement, and 43 in close confinement.
All this segregation adds up: The prison’s 112-bed High Security Center, which is largely comprised of men in segregation, costs $176,174 per person, per year — more than 4 times the cost of the state’s medium security units.
Rhode Island House Rep. Aaron Regunberg and State Sen. Harold Metts introduced legislation in the 2016 session to reform segregation at the ACI. Their bill sought to limit segregation to 15 days at a time, the limit after which the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture believes solitary confinement should be subject to absolute prohibition.
The proposed legislation also aimed to prevent certain “vulnerable populations,” including people with mental illness and LGBTQ people, from being placed in segregation. Evidence highlights that people with mental illness are disproportionately placed in segregation units across the country, and greatly feel the negative psychological affects of isolation.
“People go in insane and come out insane,” wrote one man currently incarcerated at the ACI. “Many talk to themselves… This other person tried to hang himself and all it got him was more seg time.”
“To lock a man down for passing food, newspapers, books, pictures, etc. is crazy,” wrote another incarcerated individual, “and to instigate prisoners and then take their freedom in the form of good time and lock him up 23/24 hours a day… In reality, it’s a social failure on every level.”
A grassroots coalition called #EndSolitaryRI worked to support the proposed legislation and continues to raise awareness about the issue of solitary confinement. The campaign was launched by the local chapter of Black and Pink, an organization that supports LGBTQ prisoners. Black and Pink conducted a survey of over 1,100 incarcerated people identifying as LGBTQ nationwide in 2014 and found that 85 percent had spent time in solitary confinement, four times the rate of all incarcerated people.
Some of those incarcerated in the ACI say Rhode Island fits this trend. “This institution locks people in solitary for non-problematic reasons,” one man wrote. “Like if you identify as LGBTQ, if you put lawsuits in, or you’re known for always having black literature or anything that talks bad about the government… they tend to throw you in solitary for long periods of time.”
The legislation faced strong opposition from the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, with Director A.T. Wall noting that segregation in Rhode Island is less severe than in other states that have undergone reform, such as California. The Department of Corrections claimed the legislation would take away an important security tool, despite the fact that research shows states that decrease the use of segregation, such as Maine, do not see an increase in violent incidents.
The president of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers, the local union of correctional officers, testified, “There’s a running joke right by the inmate population that they actually enjoy their breakfast in bed and they really enjoy their lunch and dinner, you know, served through room service.”
But not all who have worked in the ACI are resistant to reform. Roberta Richman, a retired ACI warden, testified against the use of solitary confinement and segregation. “I feel compelled to speak now, and I hope our state will do the right thing, and the smart thing, by reforming a practice that has so much potential to damage our fellow Rhode Islanders and our community as a whole.”
While this year’s proposed legislation did not leave the judicial committee, legislation formed a study commission to further understand the state and effects of segregation at the ACI. The commission will include lawmakers, Department of Corrections administrators, mental health workers, and other experts, and will present findings and recommendations to the House of Representatives by January 2017.
The legislation also raised awareness within the state, prompting the Providence Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, to write that “restricting the use of solitary confinement is the right move for Rhode Island.”
“Something has to change,” one currently incarcerated man wrote about the push for reform. “And I’m glad there are people to help with this change… I can’t wait to join the fight.”