ANNAPOLIS — Representatives from Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services hope to reduce reliance on restrictive housing in prison facilities but voiced opposition Tuesday to a bill in the General Assembly that would severely limit its use.
Inmates in restrictive housing, referred to as “solitary confinement” by opponents, are physically separated and placed in a cell for approximately 22 hours per day with one other person. Maryland does not have true solitary confinement in its facilities because cells are “double-bunked.”
Senate Bill 539 establishes penalties for administrative and substantive prison infractions with escalating penalties, including restrictive housing. It also caps the length of a stay in restrictive housing based on past offenses by the inmate. Those in restrictive housing would receive weekly physical and mental health assessments to determine if they can be released.
But DPSCS Secretary Stephen T. Moyer told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee that while changes need to happen – and the department agrees with some of the recommendations of the advocates supporting the bill – legislating costly and dangerous requirements is not the way to do it.
Legislative analysts estimate the cost of implementing the legislation at $11.5 million in its first year, including hiring more than 150 employees, mostly to comply with mental health assessment requirements.
DPSCS recently submitted changes to its inmate disciplinary process and expect inmates to spend less time in disciplinary segregation. The department also recently contracted to double its mental health staff throughout the system.
“I am a compassionate person and I think we’ve been doing things better but I do think the regulations are the next step,” Moyer said.
Moyer also said restrictive housing is not used arbitrarily and the disciplinary matrix in the bill does not adequately protect staff from violent inmates.
“We want to make changes but I have to look out for the safety of my correctional officers before making those change,” Moyer said.
Moyer pointed to some of the administrative offenses that would only be subject to a verbal warning on first instance, including refusing to provide a sample for a drug test and manufacturing a weapon.
But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Susan C. Lee said it offers “much-needed legislative guidelines” to the department to encourage using restrictive housing as a last resort in disciplinary situations.
“We have received numerous reports of horrible conditions in restrictive housing but those people are not coming forward because of fear of retaliation,” said Lee, D-Montgomery.
Family members of incarcerated individuals testified about weeks and months their loved ones spent in difficult conditions, sometimes from behavior that is the result of a mental illness.
Toni Holness, public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland, said data shows restrictive housing is overused in Maryland and people with serious mental illnesses fare far worse.
She also pointed to instances of inmates being released directly into the public from restrictive housing with no adjustment period, a practice that does not promote public safety.
Some committee members echoed the department’s concerns about taking away discretion to place individuals in restrictive housing.
Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, said every circumstance is different and he would not support the bill as written because it “paints with a broad brush” and takes away discretion from correctional officers.
“I like why everybody’s coming but I just have a problem believing this legislation is a remedy,” he said.
Sen. H. Wayne Norman Jr., R-Cecil and Harford, pointed out the violent underlying offenses of some of the inmates who ended up in restrictive housing but also questioned officials on the processes for identifying inmates with severe mental illness.
The bill is cross-filed with House Bill 786, which is scheduled for a hearing Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee.