Fighting back tears, Sharon Rolenc — whose son spent a year in solitary confinement — called on lawmakers Wednesday to support more oversight and other proposed reforms to the use of extreme isolation in Minnesota prisons.
“Anybody who knows me knows that I am one of Minnesota’s biggest cheerleaders,” she said at a news conference in the State Office Building, standing alongside Senate and House bill authors. “There is no other state in the union that lives and breathes the Golden Rule like we do — that believes in treating each other with dignity and compassion. But we’ve lost our way in this use of solitary confinement.”
The proposed bill — a bipartisan effort led by Republican authors in both chambers — would significantly alter Minnesota’s use of solitary confinement, including prohibiting the controversial punishment for nonviolent inmates, preventing offenders from being released straight from isolation to the streets and banning the practice for those with severe mental illnesses.
It’s unclear exactly how many prisoners would be impacted by the bill, but over the past decade, 17,500 inmates have gone to solitary confinement, many serving multiple terms that add up to years. The most common reason for a solitary sentence was “disorderly conduct,” a broad, nonviolent offense that would no longer be punishable by segregation under the proposal. Seven-hundred inmates left Minnesota correctional facilities directly from solitary over the past six years. And 11 percent of offenders in isolation live with “severe and persistent” mental illnesses, according to the Department of Corrections — though lawmakers say the proposed ban would include an even broader group of inmates than fit this standard.
Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, emphasized his purpose was not to eliminate solitary, but to create more oversight — including an annual report to the Legislature from prison officials — help move inmates to general population quicker and divert those whose conditions could be made worse by solitary into the care “they are constitutionally entitled to have.”
“Research indicates that segregation has a debilitating effect on inmates — especially those living with a mental illness,” said Zerwas. “It is wrong — it is wrong — to place someone living with a severe mental illness into complete social isolation without meaningful programming and meaningful mental health treatment.”
Zerwas said he’s in negotiations with the Department of Corrections, and acknowledged the specifics of the bill could change. DOC spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald said Zerwas and Commissioner Tom Roy had a “productive meeting” about ways to change solitary practices, and they’re optimistic that funding proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton could help implement reforms.
“They also agreed there are offenders who may still need to be in restrictive housing for the safety and security of those working in our prisons, which is of the utmost importance,” she said.
The bill sponsors noted that many aspects of the proposal mirror policies implemented in dozens of other states in recent years, though it would be the first law to address solitary use in Minnesota.
“There is no law at all about solitary confinement in Minnesota, which seems odd,” said John Stuart, criminal justice consultant for Minnesota’s National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter. “We have law about chickens. We have law about roller-skating. But something that is so important in a person’s life, there’s no law.”
Zerwas said he and other legislators were surprised to read in a December Star Tribune report that thousands of inmates have spent time in solitary confinement, including more than 400 serving a year or longer without getting out. The story included excerpts from the journal of Rolenc’s son, Keegan, who served most of his solitary time in Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights’ “supermax” unit after assaulting his son’s mother during a visit. Inmates in this unit are confined to 8 ½-by-11-foot cells, walled off from all sound, for 23 to 24 hours per day.
Rolenc remarked Wednesday that Minnesota DOC’s own research shows how visits from family — which her son was not allowed — can help reduce rates of rearrests after release.
“How can we reconcile the use of solitary with those findings?” she said. “My son made a mistake and he paid the consequences and then some. But I know what’s in his heart and what kind of man he is. Never once along the way have I ever suggested that my son should not have consequences for his actions. What I’ve questioned is the extreme use of solitary.”
Andy Mannix • 612-673-4036