Inhumane and Ineffective: Solitary Confinement in Michigan and Beyond (2013)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

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While prisoners’ rights advocates continue to call for constitutional restraints on the use of solitary confinement, states are now looking for effective paths away from reliance on this expensive form of incarceration. This symposium examined the psychological harms, constitutional problems, and enormous economic and social costs that accompany a government’s decision to confine human beings in a small prison cell twenty-three hours per day. After situating the discussion of solitary confinement within the larger context of race and the criminal justice system, this symposium paid particular attention to the state of solitary confinement in Michigan, where nearly 1,000 people are in administrative segregation. Drawing on successful reforms in Mississippi, the symposium considered strategies to reduce or eliminate the practice in Michigan and beyond.


Keynote Address: James Forman, Jr.  
Video Archive of Keynote Address

James Forman, Jr. is a Clinical Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Professor Forman teaches and writes in the areas of criminal procedure and criminal law policy, constitutional law, juvenile justice, and education law and policy. His particular interests are schools, prisons, and police, and those institutions’ race and class dimensions.

Panel 1: Isolation and Mental Health
Sharon Dolovich
Craig Haney
Robert Hillary King

Moderator: Kimberly Thomas
Video Archive of Panel 1

The consequences of holding an individual in isolation/segregation over time may include new or exacerbated mental health disturbances, assaultive and other anti-social behaviors, and chronic and acute health disorders. People who have been housed in segregation for long periods of time may also find it difficult to be in the company of others, whether in the general prison population or later in the community. Studies show that prisoners who are released from segregation directly to the community reoffend at higher rates than general population prisoners. This panel will explore the psychological effects of solitary confinement and potential constitutional challenges to its use. It will also consider the claim that people of color disproportionately suffer from the practice of solitary confinement.

Panel 2: Crisis in Michigan
Elizabeth Alexander
Robert Cohen
Jeff Gerritt
Patricia Streeter

Moderator: David Santacroce
Video Archive of Panel 2

Nearly 1,000 inmates in Michigan are in administrative segregation, the highest and most restrictive custody level, and many of them are mentally ill. Privately, Department of Corrections officials acknowledge that many mentally ill inmates do not belong in prison. Over the last two decades, however, Michigan has slashed spending on in-patient treatment, leaving courts with few options but to send mentally ill offenders to jail or prison. Several people have died as a result. In August 2006, for example, Timothy Souders—a mentally ill 21-year old serving one to four years for petty theft and resisting arrest—died of heat and thirst after spending four days strapped down in a segregation cell. This panel will evaluate the state of solitary confinement in Michigan in light of Hadix v. Caruso, a decades-long case challenging conditions of confinement, including medical care, at various Michigan prison facilities. It will also consider claims that African Americans and other people of color disproportionately suffer from the use of isolation/segregation in Michigan.

Panel 3: Strategies for Reform
James Austin
Christopher Epps
David Fathi
Marie Gottschalk
Margo Schlanger

Moderator: Jelani Jefferson Exum
Video Archive of Panel 3

 The current economic crisis has created a convergence of interests between advocates calling for constitutional restraints on solitary confinement and states looking for new and effective paths away from reliance on this expensive form of incarceration. Drawing on successful reforms in Mississippi, this panel will bring together leading scholars and advocates to discuss litigation and non-litigation strategies to reduce or eliminate the use of solitary confinement. When Mississippi moved the great majority of its prisoners out of solitary, something extraordinary happened: violence plummeted, and prisoners became better behaved. In 2010, the state permanently closed its “supermax” prison. Officials estimate that diverting prisoners from solitary confinement under Mississippi’s new model saves about $8 million dollars a year. At the same time, changes in the management of the solitary confinement population reduced violence levels by 70%.

View List of All Symposia