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WUWM & MPTV Special SeriesWhy are so many Wisconsinites behind bars?And, what are the costs?In the 2010 Census, Wisconsin had the highest percentage of incarcerated black men in the nation. One out of every eight black men of working age is behind bars. In Milwaukee County, more than half of African American men in their thirties have served time in prison.Over the course of six months, WUWM and MPTV explored Wisconsin's high rate of black male incarceration, through expert analysis and personal stories.Why is the rate so high?How does imprisonment affect the men and their futures, as well as their families, neighborhoods and the region's economy?What are possible solutions?Contribute Your IdeasDo you have questions you'd like to have answered? Stories you'd like to share? Please share your questions and comments with us.

Wisconsin Looks to Reduce the Number of Inmates in Solitary Confinement

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M.P. King / Wisconsin State Journal
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Attendees at a rally against solitary confinement spend time inside a mock solitary confinement cell outside the state Capitol in Madison in October.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism outlined new procedures the state Dept. of Corrections may follow in deciding whether to hold an inmate in solitary confinement including the person's mental status and the severity of the infraction committed.

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Credit Wisconsin Department of Corrections
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Wisconsin Department of Corrections
So-called restrictive status housing cells at Waupun Correctional Institution are just over 6 feet wide. Some Wisconsin prisoners have spent months or years in isolation as punishment for violating prison rules.

The center's Dee Hall says inmates Wisconsin assigns to solitary confinement are held in small concrete cells with almost no human interaction or natural light. Hall says prison staff feeds the inmates through a slot in a solid door and sometimes leave them without bedding for hours or even days. She says that sort of treatment can be detrimental.

“I interviewed an inmate named Talib Akbar and he seems like a very mentally strong individual, but when I talked about his time at the secure program facility in Boscobel, formally known as Supermax, he acknowledged that he really mentally deteriorated during nearly a year in solitary confinement. He began to make friends with a fly and act very strangely and become obsessed by tiny details in his cell," Hall says.

Hall says Wisconsin is also cutting the maximum time a person could remain isolated to 90 days – unless the corrections secretary agrees to add more time. Until this June, the maximum penalty was 360 days in solitary confinement for infractions ranging from sneaking kitchen spices into a cell to attempting suicide to attacking a guard. Hall says the overall goal is to reduce the use of restrictive housing.

“There have been a lot of studies now about the psychological impact that this has on inmates. In addition, there have been some studies that raise questions about whether use of this tactic really improves safety within the prisons,” Hall says.

“By international standards, anyone held in solitary confinement for more than 14 days, that’s considered torture. And even with the new changes recommended by the department, they’re still resorting to torture,” according to the Rev. Jerry Hancock, director of prison ministry outreach for the religious coalition WISDOM.

Hancock says even though the state is somewhat easing its policies, it is not yet doing enough.

“The Wisconsin Department of Corrections is proposing to gradually reduce the torture of inmates in Wisconsin’s prisons. And that’s morally irresponsible. Even with the changes they’re proposing Wisconsin will still be way behind other states in reforming solitary confinement,” Hancock says.

Hancock says states such as Colorado are getting it right. Up until a couple years ago, it had the reputation of being one of the worst offenders when it came to the number of people it held in solitary confinement. A new report by the Vera Institute for Justice says Colorado has improved its reputation and lowered its numbers, by moving mentally ill patients into residential treatment programs.

“In many ways mental illness is both a predictor of the use of solitary confinement in Wisconsin and a very bad consequence of the use of solitary confinement in Wisconsin,” Hancock says.

Hancock says Wisconsin’s goal has been to cut its solitary confinement population in half within a year. While he sees progress, he wants more.

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