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General Assembly bills tackle solitary confinement in state prisons

Several General Assembly bills introduced this week take aim at reforming aspects of how Maryland prisons use restrictive housing.

Proposed Senate bills would add regulations to how the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services isolates incarcerated pregnant women and minors.

“We have to do something about restrictive housing,” Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery) said. Lee sponsored Senate Bill 809, pertaining to medical isolation of pregnant women. “I think it’s inhumane, particularly if it involves pregnant inmates, probably some of the most vulnerable of our inmate population.”

Senate Bill 809 would require correctional facilities to have policies prohibiting involuntary placement on medical isolation or restrictive housing for pregnant inmates, with certain exceptions.

“We understand if there is a serious or immediate risk of harm,” Lee said. “If they have to be put in restrictive housing, there has to be a good reason. It’s a medical issue. It’s not like just any situation.”

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has long maintained that its prisons use restrictive housing to keep their facilities, staff and inmates safe. It classifies placements as administrative or disciplinary segregation, but both types of placements involve keeping inmates in cells for more than 22 hours a day, often with a roommate.

Civil liberties groups and international bodies, including the United Nations, have long criticized the use of solitary confinement as inhumane.

The Maryland Correctional Institution for Women currently houses pregnant incarcerated women approaching their due dates in the infirmary. In its annual reports on the use of restrictive housing, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services does not count infirmary placements among the more than 18,000 administrative placements and disciplinary segregation placements.

But researchers say infirmary placement restricts women’s recreation, supplemental nutrition and socialization to such an extent as to qualify as solitary confinement. A late 2018 report from Disability Rights Maryland on conditions in MCIW found women in infirmary to be allowed 60 to 90 minutes out of their cells a day to walk hallways.

There is no natural light in the infirmary cells or the hallways, according to the DRM report.

“When you’re pregnant, you’re supposed to be moving around, you’re supposed to have adequate food, any kinds of support, blankets, extra clothing,” said Diana Philip, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland. NARAL is part of the Reproductive Justice Inside Coalition, an advocacy group supporting the Senate bill.

“Medical isolation and restrictive housing can be up to 22 or 23 hours a day in a small cell,” Philip said. “You’re only let out for a short period of time. It’s just not the kind of healthy situation you need to be in while you’re pregnant or just gave birth.”

Senate Bill 809 has bipartisan support, Lee said. Frederick County Sen. Ron Young (D) and Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County) are among the 17 co-sponsors.

Senate Bill 774, sponsored by Sen. William C. Smith (D-Montgomery), prohibits placing minors in restrictive housing without a good cause finding by officials. Every year a few incarcerated people under the age of 18 but convicted in the adult court system end up in administrative or disciplinary segregation, according to DPSCS reports. In 2018, five people under age 18 were placed in restrictive housing.

The measure is supported by the ACLU of Maryland. Policy Director Toni Holness said the civil rights organization is concerned about the mental and physical effects prolonged isolation can have on young people.

“It’s a really inhumane practice that causes lasting damage,” Holness said.

Two other bills reforming Maryland’s use of restrictive housing were filed Wednesday but have not been assigned numbers, said Kim Haven, of Interfaith Action for Human Rights. IAHR hosted an advocacy day Wednesday regarding solitary confinement in Maryland prisons.

The two bills proposed by IAHR would reduce the maximum number of consecutive days a person can be placed on restrictive housing and prohibit releasing inmates directly from segregation to the street.

“It’s not good for public safety” to release people directly from long-term isolation back into the community, Haven said. “We have responsibility to put these in place to protect [the] community and the inmate when they come home.”

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