Report on Nevada prisons finds high use of solitary confinement

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John Locher / AP

This April 15, 2015, photo shows guard towers at High Desert State Prison in Indian Springs. The Nevada Department of Corrections is considering reforms to reduce its use of solitary confinement.

Wed, Sep 11, 2019 (2 a.m.)

About 12.3% of prisoners in Nevada were in solitary confinement or similarly segregated housing from January 2016 through September 2017, more than double the estimated national average, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice.

The Nevada Department of Corrections is considering reforms to reduce its use of solitary confinement, as suggested by the Vera Institute in a new report on Nevada prisons.

The Vera Institute partnered with the Department of Corrections as part of the nonprofit’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative, which seeks to decrease and ultimately phase out the use of solitary confinement in prisons nationwide.

It defines solitary confinement as the practice of detaining inmates in a cell “the size of a parking space” for 22-24 hours per day. Inmates typically have limited human interaction and little to no opportunities for constructive activity, such as employment or recreation.

The practice hasn’t been shown to improve prisoners’ behavior and has been linked to anxiety, depression, paranoia and hallucinations among those subject to it, even after they’ve been released from prison, said Elena Vanko, senior program associate at the Vera Institute.

“There’s been a lot of research, really over decades, looking at the harms of isolation on people, because we’re social creatures. We need interaction,” Vanko said.

The Vera Institute studied and visited five Nevada state prisons with the highest rates of solitary confinement between Jan. 1, 2016, and Sept. 30, 2017: Ely State Prison, Northern Nevada Correctional Center and Stewart Conservation Camp, High Desert State Prison, Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center and Lovelock Correctional Center. The organization reviewed the demographic data of prisoners held in solitary confinement and spoke with prison staff, Department of Corrections officials and inmates about the issue.

Under some circumstances, inmates were held in solitary confinement for several years at a time, and the department lacks specific policies that dictate how and when inmates may return to the general prison population, the report found.

Use of solitary confinement and conditions in segregated housing varied across Nevada prisons. The maximum security Ely State Prison had the highest rate of solitary confinement, with an average of 31% of inmates having lived in segregated housing during the study period. At Lovelock, by contrast, only 4% of inmates were in solitary confinement.

Although some prisons allowed inmates in segregated housing to leave their cells for up to 10 hours per week, inmates at High Desert could only leave their cells for 1.5 hours every two days, the report found.

Reasons for placement in segregated housing include disciplinary violations, a perceived safety risk to other prisoners or staff, or administrative reasons, such as awaiting the result of an alleged disciplinary infraction. Inmates might also be put in solitary confinement because they request protective custody out of concern for their own safety, the report says.

Forty-one percent of inmates in solitary confinement showed signs of mental health needs. Inmates were also sometimes kept in solitary confinement longer than necessary because there weren’t enough beds in the general housing area.

“One thing we did notice in Nevada, which we notice in other places as well, but it was particularly strong here, was the shortage of bed space,” Vanko said. “It is overcrowded.”

The Vera Institute recommends that Nevada only use solitary confinement as a last resort, reduce the length of time that inmates are held in solitary confinement, and improve conditions and programming for inmates in segregated housing. It also advises the Department of Corrections to begin to track inmates’ mental health needs and consider alternatives to solitary confinement for those inmates.

The Department of Corrections understands that solitary confinement can be detrimental to the psychological and physical health of prisoners, which is why it sought this partnership with Vera, spokesperson Scott Kelley said.

“Studies have shown that the more an inmate is in segregation, the more it can harm their ability to rehabilitate and go back into society,” Kelley said.

Despite areas of concern identified in the report, the department has made reforms in the last few years and is committed to implementing more, the report notes. The department has reduced the official length of disciplinary segregation sanctions from a maximum of two years to 60 days, except in cases of assault on staff or murder. It has also created behavior modification units at three facilities, which help inmates transition from segregated housing to general housing.

Lacking a full-time director since the resignation of former director Jim Dzurenda in July, the department has not yet determined what additional reforms to its solitary confinement use will be instated, Kelley said.

“When we do have a new director in place, this report and its recommendations will most likely be one of the main things he or she looks at to improve our department and the way we do business,” Kelley said.

The department will need to assess the costs of Vera Institute’s recommendations as well as their compatibility with current laws, Kelley added. Some of the issues highlighted in the report won’t be easy to fix.

“As a department, we’d like to see fewer inmates in segregation, especially if they’ve done their segregation time, but if we don’t have the beds to move them to, that’s a deeper issue,” Kelley said.

Other recommendations from the Vera Institute include: Mandating that all inmates in segregated housing be granted at least five hours of out-of-cell time per day; identifying safe alternatives to solitary confinement for inmates who request protective custody; and establishing fair, independent protocols for reviewing the circumstances under which an inmate is placed in solitary confinement.

The nonprofit also recommends that the department track and identify potential racial disparities in segregated housing, and stop the practice of disciplining and segregating inmates who have been accused of “self-mutilation,” or attempts at self-harm.

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