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Should prisons use solitary confinement? Advocates condemn it; officials say there is a need

Jillian Atelsek

Sep 10, 2019

Chris Kimmenez spent six months in solitary confinement in prison. It’s been 20 years since then and he still has nightmares. Today, he’s a pastor a Lombard Central Presbyterian in West Philadelphia. Julia Hatmaker |

On paper, Chris Kimmenez has every tool you’d think he needs to recover from the ordeal. He’s a former Marine with a hardened shell, a pastor with a deep faith in God’s ability to shepherd him through even the most difficult times, and a practicing psychologist with a nuanced understanding of the brain’s reaction to stress. But it’s been more than 20 years since he was locked in solitary confinement, and he said the nightmares still haven’t stopped. “I tell people all the time,” he said, “I have more trauma from six months in solitary than I have from four tours with the Marines.” Still, he considers himself one of the lucky ones. He has a job, a family and his sanity. And now, he’s part of a group fighting for a Pennsylvania law that would limit the use of segregated housing in prisons across the state and require more robust mental health programs to help the people sent there. Many activists fighting for reform are former inmates who are scarred by the months or years they spent in a brightly lit cell about the size of a parking space, allowed out for an hour per day or not at all. But they’re stable. They made it — not just out of prison but out of the shadows of trauma it wrought — when many others didn’t. As of 2016, Pennsylvania had more prisoners in long-term segregation than all but four states. State Rep. Tina Davis, a Bucks County Democrat, has sponsored a bill (House Bill 497) that would reduce the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. Davis acknowledges the bill has yet to gain much traction. State Department of Corrections staff say they’re already working toward many of the goals laid out in the bill. Since the department was investigated by the federal government in 2013 for the way it used segregated housing on mentally ill prisoners, it’s begun working on alternative sanctions and programs to help inmates phase back into their communities. Still, corrections officials say, segregation is a valuable tool for keeping the peace. People like Kimmenez, though, are making trips to the Capitol and spending hours compiling documents for legislators. They’re gathering former prisoners and their families to speak in churches and libraries across the commonwealth. In nearly every informational packet and at nearly every event, they push the same statistic: Some 95 percent of current prisoners are coming home one day. So, they say, their fight is about more than a desire to reduce the number of people who serve time in segregated housing. It’s about making sure inmates aren’t so broken when they’re released that they pose a danger to themselves or the communities to which they’re returning. The hole It’s a common misconception that restrictive housing exists solely for the most violent offenders, said Bret Grote, legal director of Pennsylvania’s Abolitionist Law Center, which litigates cases on behalf of inmates. Being sent to “the hole,” as many inmates call it, has nothing to do with your convictions and everything to do with your behavior inside prison walls. Things like violent outbursts or inciting riots can get you sent there — but so can administrative violations such as talking back, disobeying guards or possessing low-level contraband. State officials don’t use the term “solitary confinement.” Inmates aren’t subjected to sight and sound deprivation; their cells have small windows and they can hear the voices of others on their block. Critics, though, maintain that it’s the same practice by a different name. In Pennsylvania, the most common misstep associated with a visit to the hole was “failure to obey an order,” according to a 2015 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice nonprofit based in New York City. More than 80 percent of inmates written up for that were sentenced to restrictive housing, the study found. “When you’re in high school, if you don’t listen to what the teacher says, you get detention,” said state corrections secretary John Wetzel. “Prisons need to have an orderly operation.” Related: Protesters rally against solitary confinement as inmates reportedly go on hunger strike Disobeying orders can lead to violence, Wetzel said, so it’s key to have a consequence even for seemingly minor infractions. Most inmates in the hole spend 23 hours per day, five days per week, in their cells. On the weekdays, they get an hour of exercise, but on the weekends, nothing. While they can receive therapy and have monthly visits with family or friends, their access to such programs is more limited and under strict supervision. The conditions are different for Pennsylvania state prison inmates who are pregnant, under 18, elderly or deemed “severely mentally ill,” Wetzel said. Since the overhaul of the system, these people are out of their cells at a minimum of 20 hours per week. And as the state has decreased its overall state prison population, the number of inmates in segregated housing has gone down, too. Data obtained in mid-July showed 1,862 prisoners in segregation, down from more than 2,000 the previous two years. Still, the commonwealth ranks eighth in the nation for its percentage of segregated inmates who have been in restrictive housing for three years or more. Wetzel said that number was skewed high by the state’s roughly 200 death-row inmates, who, until last year, were considered to be in restrictive housing. In recent years, the department has implemented programs to curb the number of people released directly from segregation to their communities, improved access to mental health care and started using “limited privilege units” that are somewhat of a middle ground between solitary and general population. Those changes come from an understanding that while segregation is necessary, it should be limited whenever possible, Wetzel said. Robert Saleem Holbrook, who spent years in restrictive housing and works with the Human Rights Coalition, which helped draft House Bill 497, wants to make sure protections against restrictive housing are enshrined into law and can outlast changes in leadership. Prison protest Protesters gather outside the State Department of Corrections' headquarters Aug. 2, 2019, in a show of support for inmates on a hunger strike. Some state corrections officers, though, think barring solitary confinement would be a move in the wrong direction. Larry Blackwell, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said he thinks the department has gotten too lax since 2013, and segregation is no longer harsh enough. “We've gone above and beyond catering to the inmates that are locked up into solitary confinement in Pennsylvania,” he said. “The segregation today isn’t as much of a deterrent to make them follow the rules.” Holbrook, Kimmenez and the lawmakers who support reform see it differently, calling that argument “propaganda.” To them, the practice is inherently inhumane — and matters are made worse by a lack of oversight and clear policies to reign it in. They also point to state corrections statistics showing that inmate-on-staff assaults have been dropping over recent years. The bill would place limits on the amount of consecutive time that inmates can serve in solitary confinement and institute transition programs to help them adjust afterward. It would also mandate that an independent investigator make sure each corrections facility follows the rules. Under the bill, only inmates who commit violent infractions could be segregated, no prisoner could be held in restrictive housing for more than 15 days and everyone who spends time in segregation would have access to rehabilitation programs. “You have to help people re-enter society once they’ve served their debt,” said Holbrook, of Philadelphia. “And part of that is making sure that you do not drive them crazy while they are inside.” House Bill 497 is sitting in Harrisburg without much sign of movement. Its primary sponsor, Davis said the bill hasn’t yet been identified as a priority by the Capitol’s bipartisan criminal justice reform caucus. Instead, the group has been focused on issues of parole and expunging records. Davis is hopeful the bill will have a chance when the new legislative session starts up in the fall. Curtailing Pennsylvania’s use of solitary would be joining a trend. More than 15 states have passed measures with similar aims, and President Barack Obama in 2016 banned use of the practice on juvenile offenders within the federal prison system. “Nobody deserves that” With nearly two decades of trauma therapy under his belt, Kimmenez has made progress. He can wear his keys on his waist again without the metallic jangling reminding him of a guard coming to visit the hole. And as long as the TV or radio are playing loudly, he can be home alone — though he doesn’t like it much. He was arrested on federal drug charges in 1995. He’d been in a bad car accident after returning from a tour overseas, and the first medicines were prescribed ones. Soon, he developed an opioid addiction. More than anything else, the six months he spent in restrictive housing still haunt him. “It is something that’s pervasive, and it’s ongoing,” he said. “It’s something that we never fully get over.” Many studies on the effects of solitary confinement have found that keeping a person isolated for more than 10 or 15 days can impart irreversible damage to their brain. Juan Méndez, the United Nations’ leading torture expert, has said that anything longer than 15 days should be banned. Kimberly Andrews, a 20-year-old woman who was jailed on misdemeanor theft charges, tried to take her own life three separate times when held in segregation at the Allegheny County Jail earlier this year, according to a lawsuit filed by the Abolitionist Law Center. The lawsuit filed on her behalf alleges that Andrews, who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, epilepsy, anxiety and PTSD, spent more than 70 days in the jail’s restrictive housing unit despite evidence that her mental health was deteriorating. “Nobody deserves that,” Andrews said. “That should be a last resort.” At first, she passed the time by sleeping as much as she could, jumping on her bed and singing for hours on end to alleviate her boredom. She talked to herself. Even as things worsened and she attempted suicide, prison officials continued to hold her in isolation, according to the lawsuit. Wetzel said his department has very limited oversight of facilities that aren’t run by the state. The bill would change that — creating standardized requirements that would apply to all correctional facilities in Pennsylvania. For years after getting out, Holbrook said he imagined spiders dangling above his bed in the darkness. He’d lurch forward to grab at them, only to realize they’d disappeared. And even now, he’s rocked by intense mood swings and OCD tendencies that he attributes partially to his time in isolation. He was sentenced to prison at 16 years old. He got roped in with the wrong crowd as a teenager, he said, and adults convinced him to serve as a lookout for a drug-related killing. As a young inmate, he often acted out, resulting in many visits to restrictive housing. The longest consecutive term he served there lasted for three years — from ages 21 to 24. To cope during his time in solitary, Holbrook exercised ferociously and read books whenever he could. He became a paralegal while in prison and helped other inmates sue the corrections department for alleged misconduct. Kimmenez constantly stresses that he’s fortunate. He’s traumatized and has to be on the lookout for triggers often. But these days it’s mostly little things. With a slight smile, he recounted a recent night when he and his wife were enjoying dinner at a fancy restaurant. He’s had to carefully train himself to eat at a normal pace after his time in the hole. The food is brought to your cell, he said, and if you’re not done by the time the guard comes back for your tray, too bad. He’s still trying to shake that habit. “Baby, we’re paying for this,” his wife had to tell him as he frantically stuffed bites of salmon into his mouth at the restaurant. “Slow down.” Back in the daylight After years of working with recently released men, Noam Keim said she’s never expecting much in the way of social skills. She’s the program manager for Philadelphia’s Center for Carceral Communities, which provides therapy and other services for people who are struggling to adjust to life after prison. Virtually every person she works with spent some time in restrictive housing and resources to help them heal are lacking, she said. Many of the re-entry services that do exist have a cold and impersonal feel, she said. They’ll teach you how to use a computer or help you set up a bank account, but they don’t offer much in the way of helping people learn how to cope with trauma. Keim is used to people being suspicious, quick to anger or hesitant to make eye contact, and she’s trained herself to be patient and empathetic with even the most difficult clients. But sometimes, there are people who just can’t form a connection long enough to receive care. She’s seen the same scene play out over and over again with this type of client. Within a few minutes of their walking into her office, she predicts they won’t be back. Typically, she never sees them again. “I don't know what happens to them,” she said. “And that’s the thing that feels really, really scary.” The result, Keim said, is that the people who are most damaged by isolation also become the most likely to fall through the cracks. They’re lost to her. One of the strongest indicators of whether an inmate will return to crime is whether they get in trouble while in prison, Wetzel said. And those who get in trouble are the ones who get sent to the hole. So while the corrections department has tracked recidivism rates of inmates who spend time in restrictive housing, it’s hard to say what the numbers mean. “It really is a ‘chicken or the egg’ argument,” Wetzel said. Department of Corrections Martin Boutros John Wetzel, Secretary of the DOC Martin Boutros | Studies have suggested, though, that inmates released directly from segregation are more likely to commit new crimes than those who readjusted in general population first. For Holbrook and those pushing for reform, the direction of causation is clear. They’re convinced that solitary has the potential to make someone more likely to end up back behind bars and that it often causes irreparable hurt to people who otherwise had a chance at rehabilitation. Each year, more than 350 people are released directly from segregated housing back into Pennsylvania communities, according to state corrections data. Holbrook said he sees people who he knows were in the hole around the city all the time. He sees them asleep in train terminals or camped out on sidewalks. He usually gives them a few dollars to grab something to eat and then he leaves because there’s nothing else to be done. A call to action The sky opened up above the corrections department’s headquarters in Hampden Township and the protestors outside it. Ink dribbled down a dozen handmade cardboard signs, and their makers stood in the rain as puddles gathered on the parking lot and the officers monitoring the rally retreated to their cars. It wasn’t a bad turnout for a weekday afternoon, organizers said — especially considering it was only possible thanks to a handful of vehicles donated by the Human Rights Coalition and some carpooling from Philadelphia and Lancaster. “Who do we hold accountable?” Dana Lomax-Williams, who spent time in segregated housing during her incarceration, asked into a megaphone. She turned toward the windows of the massive office building. “We just want some answers, that’s all. That’s it. That’s all we want.” Even though there’s hope for change, Kimmenez said, some days it’s hard to be an advocate. Related: Death of Ty’rique Riley prompts consideration of body cameras at Dauphin County Prison Related: Ten prisoners died in Dauphin County, 4 of them from suicide, in past 5 years Traveling from his home near Philadelphia to the Capitol and spending hours running from office to office can be exhausting. And there are times when being in a room with a politician and their team of security — gazing around at all the badges and guns — gets the better of him. He has become an expert at reining in his emotions, though. He can box his experiences up into easily digestible facts and tailor them with precision to fit the interests of different lawmakers. If he’s making his case to someone he knows is a fiscal conservative, he’ll emphasize how much more expensive it is to house an inmate in segregation than in general population. He’ll filter the argument through a human rights lens if he’s meeting with a social liberal. And if it’s someone whose district has a prison or jail that offers lots of jobs, he knows he has to tread lightly. He knows, too, that he can’t schedule too many of these “hill days” in a row. It all becomes too taxing. But even though recounting his time in the hole to total strangers can be difficult, it also gives him a sense of contentment. “You get some of your power back by telling your story,” he said.

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