Advocacy groups calling for solitary confinement reform at Ohio prisons

Solitary confinement cell at Ohio prison. (WSYX/WTTE)

A new report from civil and disability rights advocates urges the state to reduce the use of solitary confinement at Ohio prisons and make sweeping reforms.

ACLU of Ohio and Disability Rights Ohio presented a report Wednesday morning showing how solitary confinement is not rehabilitative. On any given day, more than a quarter of the 2,952 Ohio prisoners in solitary confinement have a mental illness.

Ohio has the sixth largest prison population in the U.S. with one in four coming to prison for the first time for a drug offense, according to a state-issued report.

The advocacy groups want to see reforms including decreasing time inmates are in solitary confinement, increasing programming and out-of-cell time, improved data collection and stronger legislative oversight.

"Corrections officers, prison officials will rely on solitary confinement for very minor things, petty offenses," ACLU Regional Director Adrienne Gavula said. "That doesn't really prepare people to return to their communities and family."

Prisons serve as the largest provider of mental health services in the state, serving 10 times the people treated at state psychiatric hospitals for mental illness, the report said.

"Even inmates who don't have a mental illness when they go into solitary confinement can begin to show signs of a mental illness while they're in there," Disability Rights Ohio attorney Kristen Henry said. "It's because of the lack of human contact, because of the lack of programming, because of just the reality of being in such a small space by yourself for hours and hours on end."

Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Director Gary Mohr co-chaired a national committee developing restrictive housing standards.

"Ohio already has well established pilot programs focusing on restrictive housing reform and many of the recommendations made by the ACLU are well underway," said JoEllen Smith, said in an emailed statement to ABC 6 On Your Side. "It is very likely the American Correctional Association will announce new restrictive housing standards in the coming months, however DRC has not waited for these standards to begin testing new ideas. We are committed to making meaningful changes to enhance the safety and security of our prisons while also offering more inmates an opportunity to change their lives."

ACLU of Ohio officials say solitary confinement is often used as a first resort for minor violations like making too much noise, testing positive for drugs or attempting suicide.

"We have to make sure they return rehabilitated and better than when they went in," Gavula said. "Solitary confinement costs two to three times as much taxpayer money, but does not make prisons or our communities safe."

On average, there are 79 inmates in solitary confinement every say at each of Ohio's 27 prisons, according to the report. In addition to higher cost, it's explained that decreasing the use of isolation reduces violence.

Most of the re-entry mental health and substance abuse programming is recorded programs shown on television, according to the report.

"They know they're going to be in prison, they know what's gotten them there but they also feel like with better mental health treatment, with better programming, they could be living better lives and prepare themselves better for returning to our communities," Henry said.

The report also detailed higher risks of suicide in solitary confinement cells. Research done by the advocacy groups suggest psychological damage from solitary confinement can become irreversible after only seven days.

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has started presumptive release, reducing prisoners security level months before release, however, the report argues it doesn't go far enough to protect those with mental illness and insure inmates are returning to society rehabilitated.