During one of his prison sentences, Frederick resident Brandon McAllister was awakened by his cellmate in disciplinary segregation. Water was flooding their cell from under the door, he said.
“He woke me up and said, ‘We gotta get our stuff up off the floor,’” McAllister said. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. McAllister, 36, served multiple prison sentences starting when he was 18. He spent time in segregation, or solitary confinement, he said, in prisons in Baltimore, Jessup, Hagerstown and the Cumberland area. He is familiar with how people behave in that environment.
“When you’re in lockup, if the guards don’t do certain things for you or we feel like we’re being neglected, it makes us turn into animals, and we start doing animalistic things,” McAllister said. “We flood our toilets. You get people flooding their cells, water coming into your cell.”
McAllister, now working as a youth services coordinator at the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick, was among the thousands of Maryland state prison inmates who are placed on restrictive housing each year.
Solitary confinement, or restrictive housing, is a controversial practice. Although multiple domestic and international groups label it as torture, many corrections officials say it is a valuable tool for keeping inmates and prison staff safe.
Department officials have taken some steps to reduce the amount of time incarcerated people spend in solitary. Officials also opposed reform bills proposed in Maryland by legislators and prisoner rights advocates during the previous General Assembly session. These officials, such as Maryland Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Steve Moyer, say they use restrictive housing to maintain security.
In Maryland, inmates in segregation are confined for 22 hours or more a day. They usually have a cellmate, but some are alone, according to Disability Rights Maryland, which has authority to investigate public facilities. The cells are 6 feet by 9 feet, smaller than the average parking space.
The lights are always on, McAllister said. Inmates usually sleep all day and stay up all night.
“People are hollering out of their cells,” he said. “That’s all you hear. Banging on cells. Arguing back and forth. ... There is so much going on at night.”
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS) classifies restrictive housing placements in two categories: administrative segregation, which is intended for an inmate’s safety or while they await a violation hearing, and disciplinary segregation, used when an inmate is found guilty of a rule violation.
DPSCS started publishing data on its use of restrictive housing in 2016, after the Legislature, pressured by advocacy groups, passed a bill requiring annual reports.
The department’s data showed Maryland prisons using restrictive housing at nearly twice the national rate, according to the Vera Institute for Justice. In the department’s 2017 report, placements in solitary confinement had increased since 2016, at the same time Maryland was leading the country in reducing its state prison population.
Of the 19,883 inmates who made up the average daily population in 2017, 14,578 were placed in restrictive housing, and 10,232 placements were in disciplinary segregation. The average stay was 51.5 days.
The department also has a Structured Housing program at the North Branch Correctional Institution near Cumberland, according to the department’s 2017 report. The program hosts a four-stage program that offers incentives to change behavior to the department’s “worst, most frequently violent and dangerous inmates who are repeatedly placed on disciplinary segregation.”
The department started a similar program in September 2017 for inmates diagnosed with serious mental illness at the Western Correctional Institution designed for the needs of that population, according to department reports.
McAllister’s longest segregation placement was 120 days, he said. Sometimes having a cellmate was helpful to his mental state, but the proximity also led to fights.
“Some people would rather have a cell buddy on lockup because you’ll go crazy [without one],” he said. “You’re in there all day for months at a time with this individual. You start not liking certain things or argue about sports or whatever it may be. It’s just y’all two in there, so whatever happens, happens.”
Disability Rights Maryland published a report in December on the use of solitary confinement in the North Branch Correctional Institute. They found that inmates are usually allowed two, 15-minute showers a week and up to five hours a week of recreation time, which can be canceled for any weather- or security-related reason.
Mental health effects
Critics of solitary confinement often focus on the mental health effects. Juan E. Méndez, a United Nations special rapporteur, has described solitary confinement for longer than 15 days as torture and called for it to be banned in most cases.
“It’s unassailable that solitary confinement causes psychiatric harm,” Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Stuart Grassian said at a panel discussion in New York City in April. “The harm starts immediately.”
In a 2006 article, “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement,” Grassian concluded that social isolation and restrictions on environmental stimulation can cause severe psychological pain in even the most resilient people.
“The harm caused by such confinement may result in prolonged or permanent psychiatric disability, including impairments which may seriously reduce the inmate’s capacity to reintegrate into the broader community upon release from prison,” he wrote.
Researchers believe isolation and confinement can exacerbate problems for people already diagnosed with mental illness.
One man Disability Rights Maryland researchers interviewed in North Branch was diagnosed with schizophrenia and other disorders. He had been in restrictive housing for six years.
“He was drinking from the toilet, eating feces and banging his head against a wall,” Lauren Young, an attorney with Disability Rights Maryland, said at a June forum in Baltimore. Another man experienced hallucinations and heard voices. He reported seeing flames in his cell and cut his wrist and neck after voices told him to do so, Young said.
Munib Lohrasbi, an Open Society Institute fellow working with Disability Rights Maryland, is researching the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. The prison has pretty good general programing available, but mental health programs such as group therapy and counseling are lacking, according to Lohrasbi.
“They have a gardening program and a program where you can keep a cat in your cell if you behave well,” he said. “The issue is access to the programing. ... Once you’re in segregation, all the programing goes away. And once you get out, you’re not necessarily put back in the program.”
In McAllister’s experience, corrections officers usually check on inmates in disciplinary segregation only three times a day, during shift changes. Inmates who need help might be stuck waiting.
“They usually check on you when they do count during shift changes,” he said. “Other than that, you might be banging for them. ... When you come off lockup, that’s when you’ll see your counselor, if you see them then.”
According to DPSCS data, 2,127 of their inmates in 2017 had been diagnosed with serious mental illness. Of those, 84 had been placed in administrative segregation and 132 had been on disciplinary segregation.
Many inmates experiencing mental illness, however, are undiagnosed, according to Lohrasbi.
“A lot of folks, you meet and speak with them, and it is apparent they’re not well and clinical attention is needed,” Lohrasbi said. “But when you look at their records, they aren’t identified as [having serious mental illness]. They don’t have diagnoses that would entitle them to those services.”
Several other states have reported success in reining in their prison systems’ use of solitary confinement. Virginia has decreased the number of placements in administrative segregation by 53 percent, according to the Vera Institute. The number of prison infractions decreased by 56 percent.
In Colorado, inmates with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities are not allowed to be placed in segregation. Inmates who are in segregation are allowed 20 hours a week out of their cell, 10 of which are structured with various counseling and programming. Assaults by inmates on staff have decreased 79 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Effective July 2, Maryland law has been updated to reflect new guidelines for restricted housing in state prisons. Segregation isn’t allowed at all for lower-level offenses. The maximum placement for a single violation is cut from 360 days to 180 days. Suspending visiting privileges is no longer mandatory under the revised regulations.
This year, DPSCS has also contracted with a new mental health services provider. The new contract will nearly double the number of mental health service provider positions from 112 to 206, according to a DPSCS report.
The new regulations represent progress, said Lohrasbi, who feels department officials are working in good faith when they discuss reforms. But the new regulations are still far from the National Institute of Corrections’ recommendations, he said.
During the 2017 legislative session, Maryland state Sen. Susan Lee (D-Montgomery) and Delegate Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s) introduced corresponding bills that would have further reined in the use of restrictive housing. The bill was not passed.
The bill would have required prisons to give inmates in segregated housing the same visitation, mail, shower and other privileges as the general population; created a graduated sanctions system in which restrictive housing placements are allowed after a third or subsequent rule violation; and required certain vulnerable inmates, such as those with serious mental illness, to be exempt from restrictive housing until alternatives are exhausted.
Moyer opposed the bill. At a hearing, he told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee the bill would cost money and compromise prison safety.
The Maryland Correctional Administrators Association also opposed the legislation. Terry Kokolis, MCAA president and superintendent of the Anne Arundel County Department of Detention Facilities, submitted written testimony calling restrictive housing a legitimate measure for ensuring safety.
“The goal is not only to protect inmates but also to protect correctional staff,” Kokolis wrote. “Placement in restrictive housing is carefully considered, and when appropriate, is guided by sound security policies along with medical mental health professionals who must balance the need to protect other inmates and staff.”
In support of the bill, dozens of Marylanders submitted written testimonies saying their family members had been subjected to restrictive housing for things as minor as covering a light with a towel.
“Ensuring the safety and security of our dedicated correctional officers and the inmates in our custody is critical,” said Michael Ziegler, deputy secretary of operations at the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, in an email. “When an inmate acts violently, custody staff needs to immediately remove the inmate from general population to maintain safety and restore a stable environment. Restrictive housing is one of the only tools the Department has to do this.”
Baltimore resident Marcus Lilly shared his experience with solitary confinement at an event in June. Lilly, who was released from prison in December, estimates he spent more than 700 days in restricted housing during his 13 years of incarceration, including a 420-day period. He questioned the impact on safety.
“I’ve always seen people come off solitary more violent,” Lilly said. “You’re in a cell, simmering in it. ... Everyone I ever saw come off solitary was anti-social.”
McAllister said he did things in and out of prison deserving of punishment. He fought with other inmates, he was caught with a knife, he failed a drug test. And he always came out of lockup wanting to stay out. But in prison, survival was the top priority, he said.
“I never believed that I was born violent,” he said. “So all the things I did in my life, I forced myself to do those things to adapt to my surroundings. I knew it was either do those things or it’s gonna get done to me. And that was on the streets and in prison.”