Solitary confinement in IL prisons violates human rights, Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights says

Joseph Moore, an apprentice at Restore Justice who advocates for abolishing solitary confinement, spent 15 months in solitary while serving a 60-year prison sentence.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

Joseph Moore spent 15 months in a room the size of a parking space.

His meals were given to him through a slot. The unventilated box was sweltering in the summer and freezing in the winter. He rarely interacted with other people. Instead, he listened to the screams of his fellow inmates, two who killed themselves.

He said he would have lost touch with reality if not for his commitment to a daily routine and support from his family.

“It’s horrible back there,” Moore said. “It’s abject deprivation. We, as human beings, we ain’t biologically designed to be alone. We are social creatures. To leave someone in a room for days, weeks, months, years on end, that’s cruel and unusual.”

The use of solitary confinement — also called segregation or restrictive housing — in Illinois violates international human rights laws, according to a report from the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights detailing cases similar to Moore’s that calls for reducing or restricting its use, saying that would improve prison safety and inmates’ health, limit costs and help cut down on recidivism.

Hundreds of people at any one time are being held in solitary confinement statewide for spans ranging from 10 days to more than 12 years, and Black people, who account for 54.7% of those incarcerated in Illinois, make up 73.5% of the prisoners in solitary, the report says.

“Prisons exist to punish and rehabilitate people — not to torture and destroy them,” the report from the lawyers group says. “Solitary confinement literally causes the brain to shrink, and it induces a broad range of severe harms, up to and including psychosis and suicide. As practiced in Illinois, solitary confinement constitutes torture under international human rights law.”

In response, Naomi Puzzello, an Illinois Department of Corrections spokesperson, said: “IDOC does not violate human rights laws, does not utilize solitary confinement and complies with [National Commission on Correctional Health Care] and [American Correctional Association] standards regarding restrictive housing.”

Puzzello didn’t explain the distinction IDOC draws between solitary confinement and its restrictive-housing policies, which the state first standardized in November 2020.

‘Archaic principles’

The report examined a 12-year period ending last May. It says the isolation of solitary confinement can worsen mental illness and cause psychiatric issues, including panic, severe stress, withdrawal, suicidal ideation and behaviors, hallucination, rage, paranoia, depression and hopelessness.

People in solitary confinement make up nearly half of all prison suicides in the United States, though they are only a fraction of the overall prison population, according to the report, which told of four men who spent long stretches in solitary in Illinois prisons, including one man the prison system classified as “seriously mentally ill” who spent three years in isolation.

One reason that’s often given for the practice is that separating those put in solitary keeps the general population safe, but there are no peer-reviewed studies to show it makes prisons safer, said Chris Bridges of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who says it also does nothing to help rehabilitate prisoners.

“People who are in favor of using solitary confinement are relying on archaic principles,” Bridges said.

Moore was released from prison in 2022 after 26 years. He was 21 when he went in and 48 when he got out. He said he was placed in solitary during a span of three years in his mid- to late 20s, twice for smoking marijuana and once because a phone found in the prison had called a number listed on his call list.

Joseph Moore works for Restore Justice, a nonprofit focused on reforming the criminal justice system in Illinois.

Pat Nabong / Sun-Times

“No one goes to prison and returns unscathed,” Moore said. “That’s a life-altering event. That is a traumatic experience till the day you’re released. And to be placed in solitary confinement, it compounds the trauma.”

A Justice Department report has said correctional officials sometimes need to separate inmates who risk being a danger to themselves and others, but that solitary confinement should be used rarely, with the inmate held in the least restrictive environment possible for the shortest possible time.

In states where solitary confinement was restricted or reduced, misconduct and violence went down in the general population, according to the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

‘Mandela rules’ set UN standards

In what it calls the Nelson Mandela rules, the United Nations outlines when solitary confinement conditions become torture, saying confinement without human contact for 22 or more hours a day for longer than 15 days is “torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Mandela, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa, was held in solitary several times in the 27 years he was incarcerated for his anti-apartheid activism.

The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights — which is pushing the Illinois Legislature to limit the use of solitary confinement — says inmates in Illinois are suffering from the “continuation of torture” for weeks, months and years.

Pushes for limits

From January 2011 to May 2023, about 65,000 people spent 10 or more days in solitary confinement, and over 11,000 spent six months, according to the report. It says 44 people spent more than10 years in isolation, and 11 spent over 12 years in solitary.

The Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, which has been proposed in the Illinois General Assembly, would mandate inmates not be held in solitary confinement for more than 10 consecutive days in any 180-day period. It also would require that, while they’re out of their cells, they be given access to activities like classes, showers, the prison yard, medical appointments and the dining hall.

The bill would require the corrections department to post quarterly reports on the use of solitary confinement, which Bridges says is key to learning more about how often solitary is used and for what lengths of time.

State Rep. Kam Buckner, D-Chicago, a sponsor of the bill, said the use of solitary confinement is inhumane, and the full extent of the state’s use of solitary confinement isn’t known.

“So this bill would not only put some parameters on how solitary confinement is used, but it will also create transparency on how IDOC uses solitary confinement,” Buckner said.

On April 15, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D- Ill., introduced legislation to limit the use of solitary confinement by the federal Bureau of Prisons and in U.S. Marshals Service detention facilities “to the briefest term and under the least restrictive conditions possible because the overuse of solitary confinement threatens public safety, strains prison budgets and violates fundamental human rights.”

Moore now works for Restore Justice, a nonprofit that works to reform the criminal justice system in Illinois and contributed to the lawyers group’s report.

“Prison breeds a sense of learned helplessness,” Moore said. “I believe the [Illinois Department of Corrections] should be in the business of true rehabilitation, really restoring people to useful citizenship. Because, to just incarcerate people for decades and to just release them, that’s unfair to everybody — those who were incarcerated, the victims of the crimes and the taxpayer.”

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