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Criminal justice report calls for changes in Michigan’s handling of solitary confinement

Prison wall
Microsoft Images

A report released Tuesday by the Citizens for Prison Reform calls for the decreased use of solitary confinement by the Michigan Department of Corrections. 

Citizens for Prison Reform is a criminal justice organization that partnered with several Michigan organizations to form the Open MI Door campaign, which aims to end the practice of solitary.

The report details a survey of the psychological impact of solitary confinement on incarcerated people and their families. The organization said the short-term isolation should be limited to “15 days or less and only if absolutely necessary to protect the safety of incarcerated persons and corrections staff.”

"Even during this time period, people should have access to consistent and meaningful therapy, programming, and at least 4 hours out-of-cell time, if not more, each day."

It also lists ten recommendations including:

  • banning isolation for vulnerable populations (such as young people or people with disabilities)
  • banning the use of segregation as protective custody for LGBTQ+ people
  • investing in mental-health first aid and alternatives to solitary

“For many years, since 2007, I have been dreaming that we could change the use of solitary confinement,” said Lois Pullano, Executive Director of the Citizens for Prison Reform. 
Number of people in isolation

While both Citizens for Prison Reform and MDOC see the need to reduce the use of solitary confinement, they disagree on the definition of solitary confinement and the number of people in isolation.

Citizens for Prison Reform defines solitary confinement as isolated confinement for more than 20 hours a day “alone or with a cellmate, without meaningful human contact.” Pullano said the organization is using the same definition as the national criminal justice campaign Unlock the Box

According to the report, 3,211 people are in solitary and more than half are Black. As of last June, 835 people are in administrative segregation, 319 people are in temporary segregation, 130 are in punitive segregation, 980 are in the Level 5 general population, 102+ are in mental health programs and 26 people are in observational cells. 

MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz said the report’s definition of solitary confinement didn’t fit the Michigan or the national standard. According to Gautz, MDOC considers 22 hours isolation. He also said the categories included in the report, such observation, mental health, and maximum security prisoners, are not considered segregation. Gautz said those in Level 5 have less than 22 hours. 

“They’re adding things in there that don't technically qualify so that it makes the number look bigger. Therefore, it makes the problem look bigger,” he said. “As a department, we've done a lot in this space and are considered a national leader in this effort to reduce those who are in solitary confinement, especially those who are seriously mentally ill being in segregation.”

By MDOC’s definition, Gautz said there are currently 1,509 people in solitary confinement. Between temporary and punitive confinement, there are now 625 people, some of whom are new prisoners. 

Pullano defends the report’s definition. 

“If you look at an individual who is only coming out of their cell at most two hours a day, I think what you have to ask is, what are they receiving during those two hours? Are they able to receive rehabilitation, necessary programming, mental health care and human contact during two hours out?”

The Citizens for Prison Reform news release also adds, “...many families described prolonged isolation and solitary-like conditions in numerous other programs, including acute mental health units, secure residential treatment programs, and observation cells.”

Margo Schlanger is a University of Michigan law professor whose work touches on solitary confinement. She was not involved with the report.

Schlanger said she could not speak to Level 5 or other units in Michigan prisons, but said there was a discussion nationwide and the debate turns into a “definitional question” when considering being out of the cell for less than four hours and more than two. 

Schlanger said the combination of being out of the cell and what the person can do when they are out is important. 

“What I actually think matters more than that is, what happens to people when they are out of cell? When they're out of cell, are they by themselves? Because then they're still solitary. Well, when they're out of cell, are they able to engage in congregate activities?”

Impact on incarcerated people

The report details negative effects on incarcerated people’s mental health when placed in solitary confinement — some situations leading to paranoia, PTSD or death by suicide. Pullano’s experience with solitary confinement is personal, saying her son was hogtied. 

“As a result of harsh conditions, people in solitary confinement commonly experience mental and physical deterioration, such as depression, anxiety, panic, rage, delusions and hallucinations, and self-harm,” a release states. 

A Citizens for Prison Reform release also describes withholding of food and water, citing one 2019 incident where Johnathan Lancaster died of dehydration while strapped to a restraint chair in an observation cell. 

“My brother wasn’t supposed to have a death sentence,” Danielle Dunn, his sister, states in the release. “He needed help, but was refused repeatedly. Now our family must live with his tragic death, which could have been prevented.”

Karen Knox is a mother of an incarcerated man. She says her son had a known mental illness, but was placed in segregation earlier in his sentence.  

“It's not only been a trauma for him, it’s a trauma for me, for his son, for his siblings,” she said. “I have depression spells and I am worried. You're stressed out because you don't know from one day to the next what is happening to your loved one when they take away the visitation.”

Photo of Karen Knox.
Credit Photo provided by Karen Knox.
Karen Knox's son was in solitary confinement. She said a lack of contact with him caused stress for her and her family.

She said she hasn’t been able to see her son in five years.

“There was a time when he could not get email, because they will cut that off as a punishment. There are times when I cannot talk to him, and it leads to depression, stress, wondering if he's okay,” Knox said. “He attempted suicide on several occasions.”

“Because once they take the visitations away...you really have no idea what's going on. Everything is very secretive. The penal system is an unknown monster that is controlled within.”

Currently, Knox’s son is in a mental health program which gives him better access to treatment, Pullano said. 

“And we are grateful for that. But we still have so many individuals who are in his exact same position where they've had unknown mental illness. Sometimes individuals end up undiagnosed,” Pullano said. “And so then they are placed in these conditions in which they are not getting the very treatment and the help that they need to re-enter into our society.” 

The START program started in 2018 and is part of MDOC’s strategic plan for reducing the number of individuals with serious mental illness in administrative segregation, Gautz said. It allows people to meet with a counselor or a teacher in an individualized cell and progress into small groups. 

Gautz also points to an MDOC report, where the daily average number of all prisoners classified as in administrative segregation was 779 people in the 2014-2015 fiscal year and 549 people in 2018-2019.

For the daily average of all prisoners classified to administrative segregation with a serious mental illness or developmental disorder, it went from 77 people in 2014-2015 to four people in 2018-2019.

Gautz said those with mental health issues in administrative segregation are for serious cases, but MDOC tries to divert people into other programs. START was a way to do that.  

“Prior to (the START program), there really wasn't a way to get programming to individuals who were in segregation,” he said. 

Families and advocates, according to the release, said the START program still adheres to 20+ hours a day and limits contact with family.  

Pullano says she wants to see earlier programming, de-escalation training and therapeutic measures like providing tablets for video calls. 

“Do you want your U.S. tax dollars to hold somebody in these kinds of segregation units and isolation and not provide individuals inside with rehabilitation from day one, when they enter prison? Is that what you want? Do they need heaped on punishment?” Pullano said.

“Or would you rather know that the person that comes out that might live next to you has had these opportunities to be able to have life skills, training, and parenting classes in relationship building courses, and vocational training, and mental health services? We have a lot of work to do.” 

In the national scope, Schlanger said the United States still has a significant overreliance on solitary confinement. But — at the same time — she said a number of states have been working and succeeding in reducing the population. 

“I think that solitary confinement is anti-therapeutic,” Schlanger said. “Solitary confinement doesn't reduce misbehavior, it increases misbehavior. So I think that using it as a response to misbehavior is not a sensible policy. Appropriate responses include other kinds of privilege reductions, and the people who have mental health issues, include therapeutic encounters and treatments.”


Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.