Nebraska's prison system has a solitary confinement problem. Despite the passage of much needed reforms over the last few years, this harmful practice is being used more often than it should.
This week, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services held a hearing on proposed changes to solitary rules and you can bet they heard from us.
First a little context:
- In its 2021 Restrictive Housing Annual Report, NDCS noted a general drop in solitary use but its use still remains far too frequent. 1,800 people were held in solitary confinement during fiscal year 2021. In the most extreme cases, total length of stay for some people held in solitary has run more than three years total.
- Just as concerning, prison officials are still putting people with serious mental illnesses in solitary despite a clear state restriction on that practice. In 2019, the Nebraska Legislature said no person who is in a "vulnerable population" can be placed in solitary. The law defines that group as anyone who is 18 or under, pregnant, or diagnosed with a serious mental illness, a developmental disability or a traumatic brain injury. Despite that law, almost a third of people in solitary last year had a serious mental illness.
Some of NDCS' proposed changes in this new round of updates can help the department better follow the law, but others raise concern. In our testimony, we told the department we were concerned efforts related to "Secure Mental Health Units" could simply lead to people with serious mental illnesses being subjected to another version of solitary by another name.
You can read the entire testimony in the PDF below. Here's a quick excerpt:
"In essence based on the prison leadership testimony in recent legislative hearings, ongoing concerns from advocates, and illustrated in these proposed rules, Nebraska seems on a course to continue solitary for those incarcerated with severe mental illness under simply another label without meaningful reform that ends solitary for vulnerable populations required by state statute. [...] Those who are mentally ill or members of vulnerable populations should not be placed in long term restrictive housing, regardless of what such restrictive housing is labelled."
The bottom line is that Nebraska needs to reduce its reliance on solitary confinement. NDCS can and must follow state law and best practices, ensuring vulnerable people aren't subjected to this harmful practice. At the same time, state senators can help advance human rights and public safety by adopting the Mandela Rules, a 15-day limit on solitary that's been recognized as a global human rights standard. In 2021, Senator Tony Vargas introduced a bill that would implement the Mandela Rules and another that would also help ensure best practices in protecting the human rights of those subjected to solitary. These bills could pass and become law in 2022.
Prolonged use of solitary leaves people worse than when they entered. It's psychologically damaging and hurts our rehabilitative goals.
Together, we must demand a smart justice approach that puts human rights first.