LANSING, Mich. — Members of Citizens for Prison Reform gathered at the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday as part of a campaign called Open MI Door, urging lawmakers to end the use of solitary confinement in the state's prisons.
The group put up a mock jail cell to illustrate being held in solitary confinement and called on legislators to prohibit jails from using extreme practices.
“We use the definition of 20 or more hours a day locked down in isolation to define solitary confinement,” said Jacqueline Williams who serves as communications director for the Open MI Door campaign. “By our definition, there are more than 3,000 in solitary confinement on any given day and there’s no limit on length of time. The longest-serving people in solitary confinement in Michigan have been there for over 40 years.”
Kord Brown, who serves as an organizing consultant for the campaign, explained just how prevalent and unaddressed mental health issues are among prisoners.
“In our triages with them one on one, we came up with some very startling conclusions,” he said. “We discovered that over 50 percent of people being serviced by us that had been released from the Michigan Department of Corrections had diagnosed mental health issues. Nearly all of them had experienced segregation.”
The use of solitary confinement can have serious negative impacts on prisoners, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. Prisoners with preexisting mental illness are disproportionately held in solitary and often develop additional psychosis from their time inside.
“I spent a total, I think, of two years in solitary,” said Rich Griffin, who was incarcerated as a teenager. He explained that living in solitary confinement wasn’t just about being alone for days on end.
Instead, what made functioning difficult was things like sleep deprivation, "the sounds at night, not being able to sleep because people are screaming or beating on their doors because they’ve gotten so restless and so psychologically damaged that they don’t even know what to do other than act out," he said.
Members of Open MI Door want to see an end to solitary confinement in all Michigan prisons, jails, and juvenile detention facilities.
Some states like Arizona, California, and Colorado among others have shifted away from using solitary confinement in recent years, enacting reforms to reduce or ban the practice outright.
According to Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections, Michigan has no age or time limits for placing inmates in solitary confinement.
Danielle Dunn, whose brother was incarcerated and ultimately passed away in prison, said she wants to see a true culture change in Michigan’s prison system. Dunn is close to settling a federal lawsuit over her brother's death.
“Legislation and leadership within the MDOC needs to accept that change, accept that there is a problem,” she said. “Housing people in solitary confinement and subduing them with torture is unacceptable so there has to be change.”
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