Prisoner behind bars
Oregon legislators are reviving an effort to restore voting rights to thousands of Oregonians serving prison sentences. (Getty Images)

A civil rights organization has sued the Oregon Department of Corrections over its use of solitary confinement as punishment, arguing it’s unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment.

The Oregon Justice Resource Center this week filed a lawsuit in state appeals court seeking an end to department policies that allow prisons to confine incarcerated people in solitary cells for months on end. The group seeks a temporary restraining order blocking the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days while the court considers the case.

“Knowledge of the harmfulness and ineffectiveness of long term solitary confinement as a form of discipline has grown while knowledge of more effective alternatives has also grown, such that the Constitution and laws of Oregon do not permit the damage inflicted by this discredited practice to continue,” the suit reads.

Corrections Department spokeswoman Jennifer Black said the department is already working to minimize its reliance on solitary confinement. It uses segregation as a last resort when people behave violently, she said.

Since December 2020, the department has reduced its average number of disciplinary sanctions, which could include solitary confinement, from 542 per month to 367 per month, she said.

“We look forward to responding to OJRC’s claims in court,” Black said.

The department’s rules limit prisoners to a maximum of 180 days in a row in solitary confinement. A long list of behaviors can land a prisoner in solitary confinement, from 14  days for gambling or tattoos to 120 days for possessing drugs or electronics.

Department hearings officers in charge of sentencing can also assign consecutive terms in solitary confinement.

Critics have blasted the department’s use of solitary confinement for years, and it’s faced other lawsuits.

In one case under litigation, inmate and legal assistant Mark Wilson was sent to solitary confinement for 120 days after his supervisor in the law library at the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem left a toy phone on his desk in what Wilson and his attorneys described as a joking reference to how often attorneys called to discuss cases with him. 

The Oregon Justice Resource Center included with its complaint a declaration from psychiatrist Dr. Terry Kupers, an expert on mental health in prisons. He wrote that his own research, and research by other scientists over the past several decades, has demonstrated that isolation causes harm.

Humans need social interaction to maintain an identity and sense of reality, the research says. When deprived of human contact for an extended period, people suffer. 

“It is stunningly clear, and there is an evolving consensus in the community of researchers, mental health clinicians and correctional administrators, that for prisoners prone to serious mental illness time served in isolation and idleness greatly exacerbate the mental illness, worsen the disability and prognosis, and too often result in suicide,” Kupers wrote. 

Other countries and several U.S. states, including Oregon’s neighbors, already prohibit or limit the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure. 

Washington stopped using solitary confinement for discipline on Sept. 16, saying it was ineffective at changing behavior and caused physical and mental harm to prisoners. California limits the use of disciplinary solitary confinement to 10 days.

Idaho limits it to 15 days, and Nevada limits most offenses to no more than 60 days. Inmates who assault staff can face up to 180 days in solitary confinement in Nevada, and those who commit murder can spend a year in isolation. 

The Oregon Youth Authority, which incarcerates minors, stopped using isolation for punishment purposes in 2005. In 2017, that policy became law.

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