Testimony In Support of Maryland Bill SB1015 & HB1001

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Testimony in SUPPORT of SB1015 & HB1001

February 15, 2017

To: Maryland House Judiciary Committee

From: Suzanne O’Hatnick, President of Interfaith Action for Human Rights (IAHR)

Re: SUPPORT for HB1001 & SB1015 Correctional Service - Restrictive Housing - Limitations

Interfaith Action for Human Rights is a mid-Atlantic interfaith human rights organization that focuses in Maryland on the intersection of public safety and human rights.  We appreciate having the opportunity to testify in SUPPORT of HB1001 (SB1015).

Last year the legislature passed bipartisan legislation that was signed into law mandating that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services report annually on its use of restrictive housing.  Restrictive housing means a physical separation  in which the inmate is placed in a locked room or cell alone or with another prisoner for approximately 22 hours or more in a 24 hour period.

The mandated report was issued in January 2017 for FY2016. It revealed some shocking statistics:

  • 68% of inmates in state prisons spent time in isolation - restrictive housing - for an average of 50 - 60 days in FY2016. Approximately a quarter of those inmates spent multiple periods in isolation.
  • 269 inmates were released directly to the public from restrictive housing in FY2016. 
  • 172 inmates diagnosed as Seriously Mentally Ill (SMI) spent time in isolation,
  • as did 9 juveniles ages 16 or younger.

Some background about how this legislation came to be developed is useful. In 2011 IAHR was asked by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture to learn about how solitary confinement (current term of use is restrictive housing) was used in Maryland. Because of the pattern of abuse seen in US prisons abroad, there was a growing concern about the use of solitary confinement in US federal, state and local prisons and the potential for abuse in a situation where there was little information and no scrutiny.

In 2012 The Vera Institute of Justice did an assessment of Maryland’s use of restrictive housing - referred to at that time as administrative and disciplinary segregation. The Institute found that 8% of the population was in solitary at any given moment representing double the national average of use. In addition, the Institute found that use was arbitrary, varied from facility to facility and that time in isolation sometimes exceeded  even the maximum length of time in COMAR, which, at 360 days, they found also excessive. The Institute made 10 recommendations for change.

IAHR attempted to learn of the response to these recommendations, but was unable to get information voluntarily from DPSCS. In 2014 Senator Lisa Gladden and Delegate Jill P. Carter proposed legislation that  IAHR supported requiring a public reporting of the use of solitary confinement. DPSCS said they had no such thing and the bill did not make it out of committee..

in 2015 Senator Gladden and Delegate Carter once again introduced legislation to require reporting on the use of isolated confinement. We did not know what data DPSCS collected at that time and the argument that year was that we were asking for too much information that would be too costly to document. Again, the bill failed. Community support led by the ACLU, however, grew. The Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post ran editorials calling for the end of solitary confinement.

Later in 2015 through the query of a state legislator, it was learned that indeed, the situation had not really changed since 2011. Some data was provided to the legislator and in 2016 a bill was crafted to request the data that DPSCS already had. In 2016 the bill gained bi-partisan support with Senator Hough joining with Senator Gladden and Delegate Kittleman leading with Delegate Carter. The bill was signed into law in May 2016.

This year’s legislation is intended to support reform efforts recently initiated by DPSCS as recommended initially in 2012 by the Vera Institute of Justice, known for its work with states to reduce isolated confinement, and in 2016 by the National Institute of Corrections. There is clear evidence that extended periods of isolation can cause or exacerbate mental instability.  It appears that with so many being subjected to isolation in Maryland prisons,  restrictive housing is not being practiced as a last resort, but rather as a catch-all.

For that reason, IAHR strongly SUPPORTS Delegate Moon’s bill, HB1001, to limit the use of restrictive housing as a last resort rather than the first for infractions of rules.  There are times when it may be necessary. However, other methods need to be tried first - and there is ample evidence that it is possible to reduce isolated confinement and increase prison safety at the same time. One need only look to Colorado, Mississippi and New Mexico, among other states for examples.

Additionally, access to data and to prison visits upon request for a selected Working Group adds an element of transparency that has been missing.

For these reasons, IAHR urges members of the Judiciary Committee to SUPPORT HB1001 (SB1015).

Thank you for your service and for allowing this testimony.

Sincerely,

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Suzanne O’Hatnick

President, Board of Directors

Interfaith Action for Human Rights


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