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To End Solitary Confinement, Advocates Turn Up the Pressure on Sheriffs


Political Report


Sheriffs who run county jails bear responsibility for placing people in torturous isolation.

This story is part of The Badge, a series on the powers of sheriffs.

K.S., 17, was incarcerated at Georgia’s South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail for about four months, unable to pay $2,000 in bond for simple battery and misdemeanor theft charges. Like many others at the jail, she lives with mental illness—bipolar disorder and depression, according to her declaration submitted to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. 

For about two months, she was allowed out of her cell for one to two hours a day and, after attempting to kill herself, was sent to suicide watch at another jail. After a few days, she was returned to the South Fulton Jail where, again, she was confined to her cell for about 23 hours a day, according to her declaration. 

“I tried several times to call the officer in the booth using the intercom in my cell to request free time so I could speak with my mother. The officer ignored me and I was not allowed out of my cell,” she said in her declaration, dated April 22. “I attempted to strangulate myself again.”

Her declaration is part of an ongoing class action lawsuit against the Fulton County sheriff and jail staff. (Theodore Jackson was sheriff when the suit was filed in 2019. Patrick Labat replaced him in January.) 

The Southern Center for Human Rights and the Georgia Advocacy Office filed the suit on behalf of women with mental illness who are incarcerated at the jail. The plaintiffs allege that the sheriff’s office and its representatives in the jail are harming the mental health of these women by placing them in isolation. (Initials are used in the plaintiffs’ statements to protect their privacy.) 

“The sheriff holds the keys to each and every cell in the jail, and can decide whether they house people humanely, or in around-the-clock isolation with little to no human contact, fresh air, and natural light,” Atteeyah Hollie, an attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, wrote to The Appeal: Political Report in an email. “The sheriff is a named defendant because solitary confinement would not be occurring in the jail without him.”

At the local and national level, formerly incarcerated people and their families, along with civil rights activists, are demanding an end to solitary confinement in prisons and jails. On June 3, more than 130 organizations sent an open letter to President Joe Biden, urging him to end long-term solitary confinement in federal jails and prisons, ban the practice for certain vulnerable populations, and create incentives for state and local governments to follow suit. 

“Ending the practice of solitary confinement would end the pain, torture, and trauma of tens of thousands of people languishing in harsh and harmful conditions,” they wrote. 

But even without federal intervention, there are local elected officials who can take action. For most of the approximately 630,000 people locked up in local jails across the country—people like K.S. and the other women at the South Fulton jail—authority over the use or elimination of solitary confinement falls to the sheriff. 

“Sheriffs have nearly unfettered authority in their jurisdictions. Sheriffs essentially run their own fiefdoms,” said Tammie Gregg, the deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project and the head of the group’s Stop Solitary campaign. The ACLU was one of the signatories on the letter to Biden.

This edition of The Badge, a series by The Appeal: Political Report on the role of sheriffs, explains the power they have to uphold or undo the rules of solitary confinement.

Sheriffs dictate the use of solitary confinement inside most jails 

Across the country and within a state, jail policies vary in terms of why someone is sent to solitary, for how long, and how restrictive the confinement will be.

“Sheriffs set policies for the county jails,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Chicago-based Uptown People’s Law Center. “They can develop whatever policies they want to within the bounds of the Constitution.”

Inside jails, symptoms of mental illness are often treated as rule violations.

In Marion County, Indiana jails, “self-mutilation,” “causing injury to oneself,” or “failure to maintain personal hygiene” — all of which can be symptoms of mental illness — can land someone in solitary confinement for up to five days, according to the jail handbook posted on the sheriff’s website. Talking in hallways or “making loud and/or boisterous noises” can also result in up to five days in isolation. Sheriff Kerry Forestal, who was elected in 2018, runs the county’s three jail facilities. 

“The Sheriff reserves the right, at his sole discretion, to modify the rules, policies, and practices presented in the Inmate Handbook at any time in the interest of enhancing the security, efficiency, and effectiveness of the operation of the jail system,” reads the handbook for the Marion County Jail.

Misuse of the suicide hotline—what, precisely, that entails is not defined—can result in up to 30 days in solitary confinement, according to the handbook. 

Isolation can also exacerbate (or cause) mental illness, which can lead to additional violations, and more time in solitary confinement, according to numerous studies, medical experts, and formerly incarcerated people. 

J.N., an autistic prisoner in the South Fulton jail, was in its mental health treatment program, but she was terminated from the course against her wishes for “failing to make progress,” according to a declaration she filed to the court dated April 22. She has bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and temporal lobe epilepsy. She was accused of disobeying an officer’s order, and placed in isolation where she says she was allowed out of her cell for an hour a day. 

While at the jail she has tried to kill herself twice. “I attempted to kill myself by swallowing pieces of a plastic spoon,” she said in the declaration. “I was feeling so tired of being locked down.” 

People held in solitary confinement may also be more likely to die soon after they come home. A study of more than 200,000 people released from North Carolina prisons between 2000 and 2015 showed that those placed in solitary confinement were 24 percent more likely to die in their first year of release compared with those not placed in isolation. They were 78 percent more likely to die from suicide and 54 percent more likely to die from homicide. In the first two weeks after release, they were 127 percent more likely to die from an opioid overdose. 

“The punishment is meant to break you down, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually,” said Johnny Perez, director of the U.S. Prisons Program for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, which was a signatory on the letter to Biden. Perez spent about three years in solitary confinement while incarcerated in New York. 

“Solitary is one of the tools used to make you assimilate to this upside down kingdom,” he said.

Sheriffs can scale back or halt solitary confinement by ending a culture of isolation

As the harms of solitary confinement come into public view, some sheriffs have made changes to their jails. In Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), Sheriff Tom Dart announced in a Washington Post commentary in 2019 that he had eliminated the use of solitary confinement at the county jail starting in 2016. 

“Sheriff Dart has been an ardent advocate for the elimination of solitary confinement because of the adverse effects on mental health,” the sheriff’s office told the Political Report in an email.

Solitary confinement has also become a campaign issue in some sheriffs’ races. Last week, Kim Beaty won the Democratic primary for sheriff in Erie County, New York, after promising to “end solitary confinement” at the local jail. 

But advocates warn that the changes that are needed are substantive. 

People can still be held in restrictive conditions at the Chicago jail. Those who commit disciplinary infractions and are not suffering from serious mental illness are housed in the Rehabilitation Unit. They are able to be out of their cells for at least four hours a day, during which they may be shackled, in addition to time out for court or medical appointments, Dart’s office told the Political Report. 

“The Sheriff’s Office has structured the RU to allow for increased time out of cell while still ensuring the safety and security of other confined persons and staff,” the sheriff’s office wrote to the Political Report.

Limiting or abolishing solitary confinement is not only about the number of hours out of a cell, said Jennifer Peirce, a research associate at the Vera Institute of Justice and a co-author of a Vera report on solitary confinement in jails released in April. 

“Shifting that number of hours doesn’t necessarily get away from that experience of isolation,” said Peirce. “It really depends on, what are the meaningful activities and interactions with people?” Part of the experience of isolation, she said, is having limited access to programs, health services, phone calls, visits, or the library.

Many people are held in housing units that, while not labeled as restrictive housing, still confine people to their cells for at least 22 hours a day, according to Vera’s report. In half of the jails that responded to Vera’s survey, mental health units held people in their cells for at least 22 hours a day. 

Rare legislative reforms have mandated more out-of-cell time and capped the number of days a person can be held in solitary confinement. This year, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. The legislation, which applies to prisons and jails and imposes statewide standards that sheriffs and corrections officer must follow, limits stints in isolation to 15 continuous days, and mandates seven hours of out-of-cell time a day, with the exception of facility-wide emergencies or in the course of providing mental health or medical treatment. 

The bill was championed by a coalition of formerly incarcerated people, including Five Mualimm-ak, executive director of the Incarcerated Nation Network. Although these reforms are important first steps, they do not truly end the practice of solitary confinement, said Mualimm-ak.

“No reforms work,” he said. “You have to abolish the punishment model.”

Mualimm-ak was in solitary confinement for more than five years while incarcerated in New York. Among the reasons he was sent to solitary, he said, were: having 52 stamps when he was only permitted to have 50; having two aspirin; and cutting his hand.

People, especially those with mental illness, are in need of more services, not more punishment, said Mualimm-ak. A person with mental illness may be sent to solitary for not following an officer’s orders when they just needed more time to process them, he said.

“You need more support, you need more programs,” he said. “We just have to start prioritizing our most marginalized.”

Sheriffs can reduce the jail population

In the letter to Biden, the signatories wrote that reducing the number of people in solitary confinement could be accomplished, in part, by incarcerating fewer people in jails, prisons, juvenile detention facilities, and immigration detention centers. 

“Part of the work is not sending these folks to jail,” said Perez. 

Like ending solitary confinement, sheriffs can play a role in decarceration as well. Previous reporting in The Badge series noted the powers that sheriffs have to not make arrests for minor offenses and to reduce pretrial detention. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, sheriffs have also granted release to people charged with minor offenses.  

If these policies are to continue after the pandemic, they could significantly drive down jail populations, since most people in jails are held pretrial for low-level offenses

Out of the 270 jails that responded to Vera’s survey, approximately 23 percent reported that they hold some people in the general population in their cells for at least 22 hours a day. This is largely due to space constraints, they say, but expanding or building more jails is not the solution, said Peirce.

“Jail administrators should resist the temptation to propose expanding facilities or scope of services, such as expanding mental health units as a potential solution to the problem of this de facto restrictive housing,” she said. “The first priority and, we would say, a better use of resources and a more fair approach would be to prevent people from entering jail in the first place, reducing the number of people who are in jail, and finding appropriate services for those who are vulnerable.”

To reduce the use of solitary confinement inside jails, people, especially those with mental illness, must be provided more support on the outside, according to Hollie. 

“Community-based interventions on the front end that avoid criminalization and incarceration are the best solution for all people,” Hollie wrote. “In the specific case of people with serious mental illness, robust, responsive, and individualized supports and community-based services are desperately needed to thrive in the community.”

Regardless of a jail’s stated policies, it hinges on implementation 

In the South Fulton Municipal Regional Jail, several women held in solitary confinement had been accused of minor offenses, according to the 2019 complaint.  Some were found incompetent to stand trial and waited for months, in isolation, for a hospital bed to open up. 

Shortly after the suit was filed in 2019, a district court ordered the jail to provide a minimum of 20 hours of out-of-cell time per week to women housed in the mental health pods, when possible. Then in February of 2020, the court modified the preliminary injunction to apply to all women with psychiatric disabilities detained at the jail, no matter their assigned housing unit. 

The defendants claimed in a recent court filing that they have complied with the judge’s orders. 

But women with mental illness are still placed in solitary confinement, according to the groups’ motion for contempt filed in March. In one declaration filed with the court, A.S, a 17-year-old girl at the Georgia jail, wrote that she has been in solitary confinement for about six months. She has been diagnosed with a mood disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

“I keep getting more time added to my lockdown because I get upset about being alone and treated poorly by the guards,” she said in her declaration, dated April 22. Since her arrest in November, she was sent to suicide watch approximately 10 times, according to her declaration. 

“I do not want to take my life, but I am always so lonely,” she said. “Going to suicide watch is the only way I know how to get in a room around other people.” 

The plaintiffs are pressing the sheriff’s office to meet the terms of the court order, but if the case cannot be settled they anticipate going to trial this year, according to Hollie. Implementation of reforms can often be delayed, given the largely absent oversight of sheriffs’ offices. 

“[The sheriff] is the person who can end this damaging practice,” said Hollie. “We are hopeful the sheriff will choose humanity over harm going forward.”