DOC agrees to limit solitary terms to 30 days
A prisoner at Rhode Island’s John J. Moran Medium Security Prison, watches television during free time in his wheel chair on Dec. 10, 2013, in Cranston, Rhode Island. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
CRANSTON/PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Department of Corrections (DOC) agreed to new restrictions on its solitary confinement policies at the Adult Correctional Institutions as part of ongoing litigation in U.S. District Court Rhode Island.
The move came as part of arbitration in the case of Richard Lee Paiva v. Rhode Island Department of Corrections, originally filed on Feb. 24, 2017. Paiva, who is serving a life term for the stabbing death of his mother, alleged that he was kept in restrictive housing, the term DOC uses for solitary confinement, for more than 30 days. The 30-day cap is part of a set of rules, known as the Morris Rules, governing prison discipline in Rhode Island that stemmed from a 1972 federal court case.
Acting DOC Director Wayne T. Salisbury announced the changes to inmates Thursday morning in a memo.
“Although these changes are being implemented the level of accountability for ones’ action shall not change,” Salisbury stated. “I am in full support of these changes, but I must impress upon you that violations of institutional handbooks and the Code of Inmate Discipline will be dealt with in the same manner as they are prior to these changes.”
Most significant among the changes was a 30-day cap on terms in solitary confinement — only for the most serious offenses — with a maximum 22 hours in the cell. There previously were no limits.
“We believe these policies, if they’re implemented the way they’re supposed to be, no one would be kept in a cell for that long a stretch,” said Lynette Labinger, an attorney working with the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on the case, in an interview. “It’s longer than we like, but it’s still a vast improvement.”
Labinger said solitary confinement — especially when in excess of 15 days — is considered torture and has negative implications on the prisoners’ physical and mental health.
Other policy changes agreed to include:
- Corrections officials are barred from “stacking” disciplinary offenses to prevent individuals from being kept for more than 30 consecutive days in disciplinary confinement.
- After the maximum 30-day period, inmates will either be returned to “general population” or referred to a new step-down program, known as the “Restorative Housing Program” (RHP), which consists of a progression of steps designed to return individuals to the general population after successful completion.
- In the RHP step-down program, inmates will be entitled to, among other things, a TV and radio, ability to access the commissary, and access to educational materials and to services to help them with their rehabilitation.
- While in disciplinary confinement, inmates must be given a minimum of two hours out-of-cell time every day during the first 15 days, and a minimum of three hours out-of-cell every day during the next 15 days. Inmates will also be provided a tablet and reading material and allowed more visitation than currently authorized.
DOC spokesman J.R. Ventura said the changes are part of a process to reform restrictive housing since 2016 and the lawsuits have played a role.
“The staff of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections has embraced the changes to provide rehabilitative opportunities to those incarcerated who violate prison rules,” said Ventura, chief of information and public relations. “The goal of the changes is to prepare and return them to general population through programming that modifies behavior in the Restorative Housing Program.
“The Rhode Island Department of Corrections will continue to work towards nationally recognized best practices in all facets of its policies and operations to ensure the safety of all persons in our facilities.”
U.S. District Court Rhode Island Chief Judge John J. McConnell ruled on Jan. 28, 2020, that the Department of Corrections was in violation of the Morris Rules, resulting in the current arbitration.
“While not perfect, I am satisfied with these new policy reforms, which will end the harmful use of long-term punitive segregation and solitary confinement at the ACI,” Paiva said in a news release. “The hard work and unrelenting dedication of my attorneys as well as all of the voices of the advocates on the outside to make these reforms a reality cannot be overstated.”
The case remains and is unrelated to another ongoing lawsuit against DOC by the ACLU initiated in November 2019 seeking to end the practice of solitary confinement regarding prisoners with mental health issues.
“The new RIDOC policies are steps in a positive direction that bring RIDOC closer in line with recognized national best practices,” said Natalia Friedlander, a consulting attorney with the Rhode Island Center for Justice who worked on the case. “We look forward to continuing to work with people incarcerated at the ACI, RIDOC, and the court-appointed experts as we continue settlement discussions.”
Labinger said the ACLU will continue to monitor the situation.
“I have confidence that they have made a commitment to abide by them,” Labinger said. “We will be looking very carefully to make sure that this is a reality.
“It’s not something that we would say, ‘our work is done’ and move on. Far from it.”
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