Report: State Falling Short of Goals in Solitary Confinement Settlement

jail bars, with hands in handcuffs

by Andy Jones
May 3, 2017

In a new report released April 26, Disability Rights Oregon criticized the Oregon Department of Corrections for failing to make progress with many of the terms of a year-old settlement concerning the treatment of inmates with mental illness.

“The fundamental lack of progress by the Department of Corrections in reducing prolonged isolation for inmates with mental illness is deeply concerning,” DRO Attorney said in a news release [PDF]. “This will continue to be a key measurement for evaluating the Department’s progress toward transforming conditions for inmates with serious mental illness.”

The Oregon State Penitentiary holds about 40 people in its Behavioral Health Unit, which houses people with mental illness, in isolated cells for as many as 23 hours per day.

Under the Memorandum of Understanding signed between the parties, signed in January 2016, the ODOC agreed to provide inmates in solitary confinement at least 20 hours weekly outside of their cells. Other mandates include new staff training and data collection efforts, expanded space for clinical treatment in the unit, and the hiring of an outside expert.

DRO found progress in the staff’s reduction in its use of unnecessary force against inmates and fewer instances of inmates engaging in self harm. It also commended the ODOC for securing legislative funding for expanding space for clinical treatment at the Penitentiary.

However, inmates are only receiving roughly five hours per week out of isolation. DRO also raised concerns about the agency’s general lack of support for clinical staff and the excessive use of rules violations, especially where inmates are punished by reductions in time outside of their cells.

“We are concerned at the lack of progress toward increasing the hours that residents spend out of their cells while engaged in meaningful activity, the agreement’s central goal,” the report states. “We trust that ODOC’s planned and current efforts to improve its rate of progress toward that goal are sincere and well-intended.

“We also share ODOC’s hope that these new efforts will prove to be successful in the near future. However, we are concerned that the Department’s understanding of the power dynamics in the BHU is incomplete.”

DRO’s 2015 report on the Penitentiary, titled “Behind the Eleventh Door,”[PDF] the Memorandum of Understanding [PDF] and the new report are available on DRO's website [PDF].

You can also read about the use of solitary confinement in Washington's county jails, in the report by DRW's AVID Jail Project: "Cruel But Not Unusual: The Use of Solitary Confinement in Washington's County Jails."

Disability Rights Washington and Disability Rights Oregon are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Washington and Oregon, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.