Advocacy group seeks court order to limit use of solitary confinement

An advocacy group for inmates is seeking a court order to prevent Oregon prisons from holding people in solitary confinement for more than 15 days.

The Oregon Justice Resource Center is asking the state appeals court to prohibit the state Department of Corrections, saying the practice amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and is therefore unconstitutional. 

state report has found that solitary confinement inflicts mental and physical harm on inmates, who are often isolated in cells for 22 hours a day, without human contact except for checks from prison and medical staff. Every year, hundreds of Oregon inmates spend time in solitary confinement, some for a few days and others for up to 90 days, the maximum time allowed.

“Prolonged disciplinary solitary confinement is just extremely harmful,” Benjamin Haile, a senior staff attorney for the Oregon Justice Resource Center’s Civil Rights Project, said during a hearing on Wednesday. “People when they’re in solitary confinement, they become extremely mentally distressed. They often have intrusive, unstoppable thoughts often related to pain or violence. It’s beyond the pale. It’s a type of punishment that is akin to torture.”

The justice center filed the case in the Oregon Court of Appeals in Salem because it concerns state rules. Wednesday’s hearing was the last before judges determine the outcome.

Oregon Department of Corrections officials object to the use of the term “solitary confinement.” They say they use “disciplinary segregation,” arguing that under the United Nations’ definition, solitary confinement entails 22 hours or more a day without “meaningful human contact.” Oregon rules require staff to visually check prisoners in confinement every 30 minutes. Disciplinary segregation is used to keep inmates safe, said Denise Fjordbeck, the Oregon Department of Justice attorney who is representing the agency in the case.

Agency officials meet the needs of inmates in disciplinary segregation, and it allows the agency to adequately discipline inmates for serious infractions like assaults, Fjordbeck said. 

“The consequence has to be proportional to the misconduct that has been committed,” Fjordbeck said. 

At the same time, corrections officials have tried to reduce the use of isolating inmates as a form of punishment, according to agency documents. 

In an October 2022 memo to prison staff, acting Oregon Department of Corrections Director Heidi Steward said the agency needs to reduce its use of disciplinary segregation as much as possible. 

“We know that long-term stays are detrimental to a person’s health,” Steward wrote.

Each month, Oregon prisons have hundreds of cases of inmates in confinement for longer than 15 days. For the past year, the corrections agency did so an average of 283 times a month, state data show. That data does not show how many inmates were disciplined. 

The court case comes amid heightened scrutiny of the Oregon Department of Corrections, including Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the state’s only women’s prison.

Gov. Tina Kotek has convened a panel to tackle problems at the prison after a state-commissioned report released in August found harsh conditions for inmates, including a culture of retaliation and fears among staff and prisoners of being punished for filing complaints. The panel met earlier this month for the first time behind closed doors.

That report, authored by outside experts, found that solitary confinement, which it called disciplinary segregation, is harmful for women and is overused. The average length of time for an incarcerated woman to spend in solitary confinement is 10 days, the report said, citing agency data.

“It is important to note that when women are in disciplinary segregation, they are not engaged in meaningful programs or provided interventions that will help address concerning behaviors and coping patterns,” the report said. “Instead, they are locked in their cells for 22 hours a day, which is a form of sensory deprivation that is a barrier to stability and learning. This kind of response does not motivate or change behavior and has been proven to cause psychological and physical harm.”

Other states have reduced the use of solitary confinement. Earlier this year, the Washington Department of Corrections announced it plans to reduce use of solitary confinement by 90% during the next five years.

The judges didn’t indicate when they’ll rule on the lawsuit, which was filed in 2021. 

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Ben Botkin - Oregon Capital Chronicle

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.