After working on solitary confinement reform for nearly a decade, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections revised inmate discipline policy to better impose “punishments proportional to the offenses” and speed up the process that determines disciplinary action.
From when the policy changes were made effective in January to June 7, the number of inmates in solitary confinement dropped from 1,240 to 1,066, Joy Staab, DOC spokesperson, said in an email to The Badger Herald. The DOC emphasized that solitary confinement “has become the last alternative used to correct behavior.”
According to Larry Dupuis, American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin legal director, solitary confinement is often used as a punishment for a rule infraction, but also may be used for a very dangerous inmate even if he or she has not broken a specific rule.
He said prisoners are kept in a small cell for 23 hours a day and have no contact with other inmates. Human contact is with staff members, and extremely limited. Dupuis said for an individual rule infraction, there is a limit on the amount of time an inmate can spend in solitary confinement, but additional rule infractions while in confinement lead to additional time in segregation.
The Rev. Jerry Hancock who works with the WISDOM coalition, a group of religious communities advocating criminal justice reform in Wisconsin, said he believes the changes made are not enough and is skeptical whether the ones made will be enforced consistently.
Since the changes are overseen by the DOC and not state-enforced law, Hancock fears a DOC reaction to public outcry and not actual moral wrongdoing is a poor foundation for accountability.
“While I am glad they are making the changes and I am glad there was a public outcry, that is a very thin motivation for ending torture, and in fact, they are not ending torture because they still allow for six times the international standard for torture as the initial sentence,” Hancock said.
But Dupuis said it is more than just public outcry that prompted the change in policy. He said the Supreme Court has started to see cases highlighting the danger in solitary confinement. The court is trying to figure out whether or not the disciplinary method is necessary to address security problems, he said.
One of the offenses the policy changes address is using solitary confinement to punish suicidal inmates. Dupuis called this punishment “counterproductive,” adding Wisconsin prisons would potentially face “serious liability.”
In a case like a suicidal inmate, the policy changes would require the DOC to reassess the problem and find a more appropriate punishment than solitary confinement.
“The fact that the state has been able to reduce the number of people in segregation over the last few months with these new policies, without any increase in risk of violence or problems in the prisons, certainly indicates that they were overusing it prior to these new policies,” Dupuis said.
Both Dupuis and Hancock said the DOC should enlist an outside agency to review their solitary confinement usage.
Dupuis said the lack of data regarding solitary confinement and the limited amount of information available to the public are both concerning. He said in order for the DOC to actually improve the system, both must be addressed.
“The first step of addressing any problem like this is getting a handle on what is really happening, and numbers are an important piece of this” Dupuis said. “So I really encourage them to think about internally developing better metrics to understand who is in segregation, why they are in segregation, how long are they in segregation, what happens to them while they are in segregation.”