Report shines light on Ohio solitary confinement practices

white text reads, "Shining a light on solitary confinement," with a black star shape in the top right corner

Solitary Confinement Cell at SOCF
Solitary Cell at SOCF*

The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is isolating hundreds of people with mental illness for minor rule violations, exacerbating their underlying conditions and putting them at a serious risk of committing self-harm, Disability Rights Ohio and ACLU of Ohio charged in a scathing new report [PDF] released May 25.

“Putting people in isolation is devastating and makes recovery next to impossible,” said Kristen Henry, staff attorney with Disability Rights Ohio, in a news release. “Psychological damage can occur in just a few days, but hundreds of individuals in Ohio are in solitary for months or years.

“It is time for Ohio to respond to the overwhelming evidence that solitary confinement is unsafe and ineffective and implement reforms to make the state a national leader.”

The state currently holds 2,952 people, including 743 people with mental illness, in solitary confinement. While there is no concise definition of what constitutes solitary confinement, the Ohio State Penitentiary isolates such prisoners 23 hours a day in their cells. Twice a week, they aren’t released at all.

Almost none of the department’s resources are directed toward mental health services. According to the report, it costs the states $61 per day per prisoner to hold them in solitary confinement. Of that, just $3.06 is spent on mental health and recovery services.

This comes despite the increased psychological threats imposed on prisoners by solitary confinement. Prisoners in such placements are 6.9 times more likely to commit self-harm than other inmates, the report states.

“We have nothing to occupy our minds,” one prisoner told DRO and ACLU investigators. “All we can do is sit, think, and let our head play tricks on us. Sometimes there is video group where we watch National Geographic animal videos and draw. The whole mental health system is horrible at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility [SOCF].

“I sit in my cell all day and think. I try to block out the voices I hear. My meds help a little, but not all the way. I feel like the walls breathe sometimes, and the cell gets smaller. The isolation drives me crazy. It traps me with my thoughts, and I’m my own worst enemy.”

Among its many recommendations, the advocacy groups called on the state to use solitary confinement as a “last resort” and never for “retaliation, staff convenience, to mitigate facility overcrowding, or as a substitute for an active medical or mental health treatment program.”

All prisoners, the report argues, should be given a minimum of 10 hours of structured programming and 10 hours of unstructured time outside of their cells each week.

They unequivocally call for a ban on solitary confinement for people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities, as well as improved data collection and staff training efforts.

“It is time for Ohio to respond to the overwhelming evidence that solitary confinement is unsafe and ineffective—especially for people with mental illness—and to implement reforms that will make Ohio a national leader,” the report states.

A series of videos, featuring the stories of a few of the dozens of prisoners interviewed for the report, can be seen here.

Disability Rights Ohio and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Ohio and Washington, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.

*Photo Source: Shining a Light on Solitary Confinement [PDF].