CRANSTON, R.I. (AP) — A national movement against solitary confinement for prisoners has reached Rhode Island, where lawmakers have proposed limiting the isolation of inmates to no more than 15 days at a time.
The legislation would require a major overhaul of the practice of segregating some inmates into small cells where they spend months or years with little human interaction.
"It's used for punishment and it's used to break you down," said state Sen. Harold Metts, who regularly visits prisoners on Sundays as a Baptist deacon. "If you already have a mental illness, it's certainly not going to help. It'll probably make it worse."
The bill, sponsored in the state Senate by Metts and in the House by Rep. Aaron Regunberg, both Providence Democrats, is part of a broader national prison reform movement picking up in states from Colorado to Mississippi.
The Rhode Island bill also would ban solitary confinement for the youngest and oldest inmates, the mentally disabled and other vulnerable groups.
Prison officials say the proposal would take away the discretion they need to maintain a safe environment.
"It's premised on some fundamental misunderstanding of what we do in our system," said A.T. Wall, director of the state Department of Corrections. "The term solitary confinement connotes the 'Count of Monte Cristo,' locked deep in a dungeon with no one to see and nothing to do."
Wall said the prison uses what it calls disciplinary confinement as a temporary punishment to deter bad behavior. A separate policy — called administrative confinement — is used for other prisoners such as those deemed a chronic safety threat.
His assertion that the state doesn't put inmates in "extreme isolation" contrasts with the stories of people who've spent time in segregated cells.
"It disassociates you with everybody," said Alan Lowell, a 25-year-old who spent several years cycling in and out of the Cranston complex where the state houses all of its prisoners. "You don't leave that room for anything. Everything is brought to you and handed to you through a little hole."
Lowell, who was locked up for drug offenses, acknowledges he earned his way into a segregation cell in 2011 by getting into a fight and prolonged that stay with another fight. But he said some of the things that kept him there for more than nine months were arbitrary and unfair — such as hoarding an orange he wanted to eat later.
Prisoners in disciplinary confinement are supposed to get a short exercise break in an outdoor cage at least three days a week and occasional showers. But Lowell said his time in segregation included a stretch of 13 to 15 days when he never left his cell. State officials said they could not immediately find a record confirming that claim.
"I remember every single minute of it. You don't forget stuff like that," Lowell said. "It's called corrections, not confinement. It's supposed to help fix us, not bring us down."
Wall agrees with that basic premise but said his system already has a nuanced system in place to deal with a "small category of inmates whose behavior is very challenging" and a danger to others. Of the roughly 3,000 inmates in the state's custody, 191 were in some form of segregated confinement this week.
On a recent tour of the state's highest-security prison facility, inmates isolated in 8-by-10-foot units pushed their faces up to their cell door windows and signaled at Wall to talk to them. He did, listening to them make cases for why they deserve to go back to the general population.
"I really do hope you're able to earn your way out," Wall told one.
The United Nations has condemned the use of solitary confinement. President Barack Obama said it can have "devastating, lasting psychological consequences" when he announced in January a ban on isolating juveniles and low-level offenders in federal prisons. California has agreed in a legal settlement to halt its unlimited isolation of hundreds of imprisoned gang leaders in tiny, windowless cells. New York agreed in December to sharply curb how long and how many inmates are segregated.
Wall said Rhode Island's system is far less austere and strives to balance safety and rehabilitation. Being the nation's smallest state means inmates and prison staff often "grew up together, went to school together, know each other by name," and will likely see each other at gas stations or supermarkets after the inmates are freed.
"That's a pretty powerful reminder of what the stakes are," he said.