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Building a New Prison Could Reduce Utah's Rampant Use of Barbaric "Restrictive Housing"

28 July 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

In practice, “solitary confinement” isn’t exactly what you see in movies: the dirt-smeared man alone in a dark cell, with a rat for company and a tiny window his only connection to the outside world.p026ywvb

But trust me, it’s not anything you’d ever want to experience, and the effects are worse than most of us realize.

The ACLU defines “solitary confinement” as isolation for at least 22 hours a day with, among other restrictions, extremely limited human contact, little to no natural light, and severe restrictions on participation in programming and therapeutic activities (including religious services).

Correctional staff rarely – if ever – use the term “solitary confinement.” You’re more likely to hear “restricted housing” or “administrative segregation.”

Whatever you call it, we use the practice regularly in Utah. Sadly, sometimes we put prisoners in these terrible conditions because our antiquated facilities at Utah State Prison prevent us from doing any better.

About 900 Utah state inmates – out of about 6,750 total statewide – are held in restricted housings. That’s more than 13%.

(To be fair, when inmates are kept in their cells for 47 out of 48 hours – in Utah’s “Security Threat Group” housing at the Draper prison– they aren’t always alone. They share their tiny cell with another person for all those hours.)

Given that the international community increasingly considers use of solitary confinement to be a type of torture, and that studies since the 1930s have indicated seriously detrimental mental and emotional outcomes from its use, this number is alarming.

Men and women, of all ages, are subject to “restrictive housing” conditions, for any one of the following reasons:

  • they are suffering from serious mental illness that is difficult to treat and control in prison,
  • they have been labeled as “gang-involved,” or
  • due to a high profile crime, they are kept isolated “for their own protection.”

Finally, most unforgivable: there simply isn’t enough room in “general population.” So into "the hole" they go.

The (over)use of solitary confinement, doesn’t just upset the ACLU. It bothers Utah's Department of Corrections, too. UDC acknowledges that extensive use of restricted housing is not ideal. Inmates don’t do as well when they are denied programming, visitation and outdoor privileges. To their credit, UDC is working to ensure that no one is released from prison directly from restricted housing – the psychological and social impacts of solitary confinement make it essentially impossible for released inmates to transition successfully back to life in our communities.

UDC administrators are working with prisoner advocates to reform the use of restricted housing. They are updating their system of classifying prisoners for different housing units and privileges. They’ve ordered special equipment that will allow even the most restricted prisoners to participate in classes.

But there is only so much they can do, given their current facility restraints.

You see, restricted housing is actually less restrictive in the Central Utah Correctional Facility (CUCF) in Gunnison, which was built in 1995, with a therapeutic design that facilitates more autonomy and interaction for inmates.

In contrast, at the Utah State Prison (USP) in Draper, there is not enough safely-supervised outdoor recreation space to allow restricted inmates out of their cells for more than three hours a week. In fact, USP doesn’t even have enough classroom space to accommodate the new classroom equipment for high-security inmates...and inmates who don’t complete therapeutic programming typically don’t ever qualify for release.  

Building a new prison from the ground up would allow UDC to completely revamp how different categories of inmates are housed. Inmates could be kept safe and under control without destroying their mental health. Their behavior could be corrected without denying them access to religious services, family visits, rehabilitation/educational programming, sunlight and exercise.

The vast majority of inmates will be released back to our shared communities. It is in the best interest of public safety to tend to their mental, emotional and social healthy while they are incarcerated.

We must end the rampant use of restrictive housing in Utah, and a new prison could help us realize that goal.