SPRINGFIELD — Acknowledging that in the past, inmates have too often been housed in segregation, the Illinois Department of Corrections is proposing new restrictions on the practice.
“This is going to be a culture change, frankly, for the Illinois Department of Corrections,” department attorney Nancy Vincent said Wednesday in Springfield during a public hearing on the proposal. “And we also want the public to understand that this is just the first step, both in that culture change and in how we administer discipline and segregation.”
Among other changes, the proposal would require that mental health professionals play a greater role in determining whether segregation is an appropriate disciplinary measure for inmates who have committed offenses while in prison. For example, if an inmate is determined to be “seriously mentally ill,” the recommendations of a mental health professional would have to be considered if an inmate has committed an offense for which segregation is a possible punishment.
The department also proposes allowing inmates in segregation to shower and shave at least three times per week rather than just once and requiring that segregated cells “provide visual access to natural light.”
The rules also would require that a mental health professional make rounds in each segregation unit at least once a week and that a chaplain make weekly visits as well.
Additionally, the department’s director or deputy director would be required to review all cases in which an inmate is segregated for an indeterminate length of time or for longer than a year.
Mike Atchison, the department’s chief of operations, said that even before the new rules take effect, officials have been taking steps to reduce the use of segregation.
The number of prisoners in disciplinary segregation has dropped from 2,157 on Jan. 1, 2015, to 1,336 on Sept. 30, a reduction of nearly 40 percent, Atchison said.
“We’re making significant progress in this regard,” he said, noting that the department must balance the safety of inmates with that prison staff and the general public.
Critics of segregated detention, who tend to favor the term “solitary confinement,” credit the department for taking steps to reduce its use but argue that those steps and the current proposal don’t go far enough.
Alan Mills is executive director of the Chicago-based Uptown People’s Law Center, which has had several legal battles with the department over its use of segregation.
Mills said at Wednesday’s hearing that the United Nations has called on countries to ban solitary confinement in most cases and to strictly prohibit its use for more than 15 days because it can cause lasting mental damage.
While he once hesitated to call it “torture,” Mills said he now thinks that’s the proper term.
“If you accept the truth that solitary is torture, there’s just no moral alternative but to end it,” he said.
Mills said, however, the current proposal “is a great start.”
That’s a view shared by Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog.
“These changes definitely begin to codify and address needed reforms,” Vollen-Katz said.
Additional steps should be taken, she said, including allowing inmates in segregation more time out of their cells.
Meanwhile, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, which represents prison workers, has raised concerns, including whether changes will be accompanied by the increased staffing that would be required to carry them out.
Atchison said that although the department wants to improve its use of segregation, “we categorically deny that it is torture.”
“If we don’t have that tool and the discretion to use it, then there’ll be no control within our facilities,” he said.
The proposed rules will require approval from the General Assembly’s bipartisan Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.