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Ranked high in suicides, Utah State Prison seeks to reduce solitary confinement

First Published      Last Updated May 06 2017 10:36 pm


Institutional discipline » Research shows punitive isolation is mentally and emotionally harmful — and sometimes deadly.

From 2000 to 2013, Utah had a disturbing, even deadly, distinction: It carried the highest suicide rate in the nation among state prisoners.

In 2014, only Rhode Island had a worse ranking.

Brock Tucker, 19, added to Utah's toll Oct. 2, 2014, when he hanged himself in his cell at the Gunnison prison. He spent 154 days of one year in solitary confinement, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court against the Utah Department of Corrections by his grandmother, Janet Crane.

Tucker suffered from mental and behavioral problems brought on by brain damage as a toddler.

Solitary confinement is a significant causal factor of inmate suicide, according to many researchers and the U.S. Department of Justice. Years of scientific investigation reveal that isolation is harsh on inmates, particularly those who suffer from mental illness.




Now, officials at the Utah Department of Corrections say they are pushing into a new era, when solitary confinement will not be used as a catchall for discipline of inmates. Since Rollin Cook took over as executive director in April 2013, the department is taking a fresh look at the practice.

Prison officials are seeking alternatives to solitary confinement, also called "restrictive housing" or "punitive isolation," and are working with the Disability Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah and the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network to find solutions, said Deputy Director of Corrections Jerry Pope.

For example, in one year, from 2012 to 2013, the Utah State Prison's suicide rate increased more than 53 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In 2014, the latest year for which such statistics are available, Utah had a prison suicide rate of 44 per 100,000 — about three per year. Rhode Island's is 45 per 100,000, according to the bureau.

Utah prison officials also are collaborating with the Vera Institute of Justice, a national organization that seeks to improve justice systems to "ensure fairness, promote safety and strengthen communities."

It comes too late for Tucker. According to Crane's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, his parents were drug abusers who had a volatile relationship. When he was 2 years old, Tucker suffered from a near-drowning accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury.

Crane took custody of her grandson in June 2000. In 2007, they moved into a gang-infested neighborhood in South Salt Lake, according to the suit, where Tucker began getting into trouble, including stealing cars.

He was diagnosed with developmental and behavioral disorders, such as impulse control disorder, resulting from brain injury, by Salt Lake City area neuropsychologist David E. Nilsson.

Nilsson advised the court in 2007 that Tucker "should be treated in consultation with a neuropsychologist, and that any facility that employed a traditional punishment/reward system alone, without adjusting it to his medical needs, would make things worse for him."

Tucker was in and out of detention facilities and treatment centers. In June 2009, he was moved to Provo Canyon School, where the staff beat him, according to the lawsuit. He then attempted suicide.

In March 2012, Tucker was charged with auto theft and was tried as an adult. He was sentenced to two to five years at the Utah State Prison. When he became an inmate at age 17, he stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 140 pounds.

In July 2015, responding to the reported ill-effects of isolation, President Barack Obama ordered the Justice Department to conduct a review of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. He also directed the department to develop strategies for reducing the use of isolation.

Vera estimates that as many as 80,000 inmates are in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails.

In their report, DOJ officials said solitary confinement should be used rarely.

"When officials determine that an inmate must be segregated from the general population," the report states, "that inmate should be housed in safe, humane conditions that, ideally, prepare the individual for reintegration into both the general prison population and society at large."

The Utah Department of Corrections should be applauded for its efforts to restrict solitary confinement, said Aaron Kinikini, the legal director of the Disability Law Center.

"Right now, it's night and day," he said. "I give them a lot of credit for thinking about this in a new way."

Punitive isolation, he noted, was the "go-to" punitive measure for inmates who were not following instructions or causing trouble. Kinikini said some of the law center's clients had spent in excess of 200 days in solitary confinement.

"They would go in there and [mentally] decompensate," he said. "And when they'd get out, they'd freak out and get more punitive isolation. It was ridiculous."

The Department of Corrections continues to work toward a written policy regarding solitary confinement, Pope said.

The alternatives that prison officials are testing include mental evaluations of inmates who are acting in a manner that would have placed them in solitary confinement; placing inmates in housing units that are more restrictive but not in 24-hour isolation; and, for inmates who are placed in solitary confinement, the sentences would be shorter.

csmart@sltrib.com

 

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