With four weeks left in Maryland’s 2019 General Assembly session, legislators could still make reforms to how state prisons and jails use restrictive housing.
The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday heard testimony regarding bills aimed at restricting Maryland correctional facilities’ use of restrictive housing for pregnant women, minors, inmates with mental illness and soon-to-be released inmates. Cross-filed versions of the bills are awaiting votes in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Restrictive housing, the confinement of incarcerated people to a cell for 22 hours or more a day, has long been controversial. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which operates the state’s prisons, maintains that it uses disciplinary and administrative segregation to ensure the safety of inmates and staff. Critics express concern for the physical and mental health effects of prolonged isolation.
Maryland state prisons use restrictive housing at nearly twice the national average rate, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. DPSCS reported having 18,998 inmates at the end of fiscal 2018, and 14,340 of those inmates had spent time in restrictive housing during the fiscal year.
County jails and detention centers across the state also use restrictive housing but are not required to report data on their use.
Current reform bills aim to curb restrictive housing for vulnerable populations. House Bill 745 and Senate Bill 809 would restrict when correctional facilities can place pregnant women in medical isolation involuntarily. House Bill 1001 and Senate Bill 774 would limit when and for how long minors can be placed in restrictive housing. House Bill 1002 would prohibit releasing inmates directly from restrictive housing to the community. House Bill 1029 would limit how placing inmates with severe mental illness in restrictive housing to not more than 15 days.
The House Judiciary Committee, which includes Frederick and Carroll County delegates Jesse Pippy (R) and Daniel Cox (R), heard testimony in support of the bills Tuesday.
“It really astounds me that I’m even here for this legislation. It’s obvious [pregnant women] shouldn’t be in restrictive housing,” Del. Wanika Fisher (D-Prince George’s), sponsor of House Bill 745, told the committee Tuesday. “This might not be an everyday occurrence in our state. But it’s happening, and it’s shameful. It’s time that Maryland is a leader and not lagging in this issue.”
Del. Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s) sponsored House bills 1001, 1002 and 1029. The harm caused by prolonged isolation is well-documented and in some cases verges on violations of the Eighth Amendment, which protects against cruel and unusual punishment, Lewis said.
“It can cause a lot of long-term adverse effects, from trauma to depression and lack of impulse control,” Lewis said of restrictive housing. “Juvenile offenders are among the more susceptible.”
New York City resident Akeem Browder traveled to Annapolis to testify in support of House Bill 1001. Browder’s younger brother, Kalief Browder, killed himself in 2015 after a New York detention center held him in solitary confinement for nearly two years. Kalief Browder was awaiting trial on a theft charge, but prosecutors later dismissed the case.
“I hope everyone understands that this needs to change,” Akeem Browder said.
Legislators on the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, including Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick & Carroll), heard testimony in support of the cross-filed versions of the pregnant inmates and minors bills in February. The committee has not yet voted on the measures.