For the past twelve months, there has been a burgeoning campaign to abolish, or greatly reduce, the use of segregated confinement in prisons. Advocates for the campaign call such classifications "solitary confinement" despite the fact that in some states, like New York, prisoners in these cells are often double-celled. The Michigan Department of Corrections, as well as other prison systems, uses labels such as "segregation," "special management," "special housing," and "observation" for these classifications. Prisoners ordinarily use traditional terms, such as "the hole." In this Essay we will refer to such restrictive classifications as "segregation" or "segregated confinement." Our perspective on the problems with such classifications comes from serving as counsel for plaintiffs in Hadix v. Caruso. Hadix is a long-running class action regarding what was once called the State Prison of Southern Michigan; in this case, we are attempting to enforce remaining portions of a 1984 consent decree to which the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) is subject. Part of what we describe in this Essay is the harm that segregated confinement has inflicted on mentally ill members of the Hadix class. The evidence of harm to mentally ill prisoners from segregated confinement that we found was entirely predictable. It has long been known that segregated confinement results in the deterioration of the mental health status of many prisoners so confined and the related deterioration of their ability to interact safely with other persons once released from segregation. This Essay, however, will not focus particularly on the harms caused by the propensity of segregated confinement to engender or exacerbate mental illness. We will describe examples drawn from our own experiences and other litigation in Michigan documenting the potential for lethality from assigning medically vulnerable prisoners to segregated confinement - an issue that has received less attention in the national campaign against the use of solitary confinement. We will also suggest explanations for why assigning such prisoners to segregated confinement is so predictably dangerous, as well as why the MDOC has been so slow to recognize these dangers.
Elizabeth Alexander & Patricia Streeter,
Isolated Confinement in Michigan: Mapping the Circles of Hell,
Mich. J. Race & L.
Available at: http://repository.law.umich.edu/mjrl/vol18/iss2/1