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Advocacy groups seek changes to ‘solitary confinement’ in Md. prisons

Chipped layers of paint peel from cell doors in the now-closed Men's Detention center in Baltimore City. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Chipped layers of paint peel from cell doors in the now-closed Men’s Detention center in Baltimore City. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Legislation to reduce use of restrictive housing in Maryland prisons is expected to be reintroduced in the 2018 General Assembly session because circumstances have not improved over the years the issue has been tracked, advocates said Thursday.

Maryland places individuals in segregation — 22 or more hours in a cell with or without a cellmate —at twice the national average, and the rate is even higher for individuals with physical or mental disabilities, according to a report from Disability Rights Maryland.

In a study of segregation practices at the North Branch Correctional Institution, a maximum-security facility in Cumberland, DRM found violations of the Eighth Amendment, Maryland Declaration of Rights and Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Our Constitution prohibits cruel and inhumane treatment,” said Lauren Young, director of litigation for DRM. “Our correctional facilities do not.”

With low staffing and key positions vacant in DPSCS, “segregation becomes our default,” Young added Thursday at an event announcing the report.

Del. Jazz M. Lewis, D-Prince George’s, and Sen. Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery, will sponsor legislation to limit restrictive housing and its use for vulnerable members of the prison population, including pregnant women, older prisoners, and those with mental or physical disabilities.

“You’re still entitled, as a citizen, to humane conditions,” Lewis said.

The legislation, which has not been filed yet, will also create regulations for when segregation can be used and how often as well as the way it is imposed.

Lewis called the legislation “common sense and fair to just bring us into the 21st century.”

Michael W. Lore, Lee’s chief of staff, said the changes would protect a vulnerable population and address a human rights issue.

“Maryland is not on par with most states,” he said. “It’s actually worse than most states.

Lore also said segregation creates a public safety issue when individuals with mental health problems are placed in conditions that exacerbate them then released back into the community.

Exacerbating problems

The issue of reentry has resonated with a lot of legislators, according to Toni Holness, public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, but the study released Thursday puts a “painfully human face on the numbers that we have seen coming out of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services for years.”

A reporting law passed the General Assembly in 2016, an investigation found 68 percent of prisoners had spent some time in segregation last year, Holness said.

Segregation does not create safer prison conditions, according to the report, and can exacerbate problems for inmate with mental health conditions, many of whom are unable to conform their behavior to prison rules because of their conditions.

In states that have limited use of restrictive housing, violent incidents and infractions have held steady or decreased, according to the report. Maine decreased the number of people in segregation and time they spent there as well as improved conditions and subsequently saw no increase in violence. Ohio and Mississippi reduced their super-max segregation populations more than 80 percent and saw a reduction in serious prison infractions.

Common remedies identified in litigation over segregated prisoners include alternate sanctions or alternative housing programs for inmates with disabilities; increased out-of-cell time; enhanced mental health services; and accommodations for disabilities to provide equal access to programs.

Misuse and abuse of segregation against individuals with mental illnesses and physical disabilities is counterproductive, according to Julie Magers, coalition leader with the Maryland Prisoners’ Rights Coalition.

“This is not corrections,” she said. “It does nothing at all to rehabilitate someone. In fact, it makes it worse.”

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