William St. John, a career criminal who robbed and stole to feed a drug addiction, hated the “supermax” prison in Oak Park Heights so badly he once plotted to eat razors so an accomplice outside could help him escape during the ambulance ride. Prison guards got wise to St. John’s ruse in time to thwart it.
A couple years later, St. John was still making plans. He told staff he wanted to stay in the mental health unit. If they sent him back to solitary, locked alone in a small cell for 23 hours a day, he’d kill himself, he told his keepers.
St. John was moved to solitary the next day. Before nightfall they found his body in the showers.
The Minnesota Department of Corrections disciplined 19 corrections officers who falsified records to say they’d been “making the rounds” in the days before his suicide, as explored in a 2016 story by KSTP.
The TV station ran another story on Oak Park Heights earlier this month, only this time the prisoners played the bad guys. It’s “been pretty tough” at the prison lately, reporter Jay Kolls told the camera, with “10 assaults” committed on staffers responsible for more than 400 of the state’s “worst” prisoners.
Kolls’ source, a single anonymous guard, blamed the assaults on a cut in the maximum punishment of solitary confinement—called “the hole”—from two years to 90 days. Guards had been “forecasting” violence, the source said, and “it’s happening now.”
Is it? Those “10 assaults” Kolls mentioned stemmed from just two incidents. In one, a group of inmates jumped five corrections officers. In another, a single inmate clashed with five more. Upsetting scenes, though hardly proof of a system-wide epidemic. There’s even less evidence to support a connection to the use of solitary confinement.
The state Department of Corrections cut the maximum solitary punishment in late 2016, shortly before the Star Tribune published a damning report on its use. In the previous decade, some 17,500 Minnesota prisoners spent time in the hole, almost 2,500 of whom had diagnosed mental health issues.
One schizophrenic told the paper he’d never heard voices in his head until long stretches in isolation. All told, he did more than nine years in solitary, a practice that a United Nations report has labeled an act of “torture.”
The stories shocked Rep. Nick Zerwas (R-Elk River), as did the fact that solitary confinement wasn’t even addressed in state law. Zerwas doesn’t dispute the department’s right to use it—especially for inmates who assault guards or each other—but thinks they should at least own it.
A bill he authored would require a prison warden to sign off on a sentence longer than 30 days, while the corrections commissioner would have to approve any longer than 60 days.
The issue has no value politically—why fight for the rights of people who can’t vote?—yet Zerwas convinced colleagues it was “a human issue, and a moral issue.” His bill passed in the House, but can’t even get a hearing in the Senate, where Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) chairs the public safety committee. Limmer has conceded the use of solitary does “seem a bit draconian,” and he would know: He’s a former corrections officer.
Zerwas is hopeful he can fight for at least a yearly public account of how often Minnesota prisons impose solitary and why. “We’re treating people, some with severe mental health problems, like animals,” he says. Worse, actually. Dogs at the Humane Society get let outside every couple hours.
KSTP’s sloppy but scary report does reform efforts no favors. “There’s no research showing that reducing solitary confinement causes more assaults,” says Sue Abderholden, director of the state chapter of the National Association for Mental Illness. (KSTP says only: “We stand behind our story and have no comment.”)
In recent years, Maine, North Dakota, and Texas—not bleeding-heart strongholds—have drastically reduced their use of solitary confinement. Opponents predicted an inevitably gory aftermath. It never came.
In Colorado, where new rules limit solitary sentences to 15 days, corrections commissioner Rick Raemisch says flatly: “The less you use it, the safer your facilities are, and the safer your facilities are, the safer your communities are.” That last part is no idle chatter: Raemisch’s predecessor was assassinated by an inmate who spent much of his sentence in the hole.
Safety was why Minnesota constructed the Oak Park Heights prison, the state’s only supermax site, in 1982. Two decades later, a study found its creation had no measurable effect on prisoners’ assaults on guards, or each other.
Solitary punishment in our prisons peaked in the years 2010-2013, with more than 8,000 sentences imposed in 2011 alone. Those years also happened to be dangerous ones for prison employees. A combined 48 staffers were injured in prisoner assaults from 2010-12. The next three years, as the number of solitary sentences declined, “assaults of staff causing harm” fell by more than half.
Eventually, 97 percent of all inmates get released. More than a third of Minnesota inmates let out in 2014 had spent at least some time in solitary. Once on the outside, they had “higher rates of supervision [violations], new arrests, and new convictions.”
Frequent use isn’t making anyone safer, inside prison or out. But it’s easy: a steel door solution to problems we refuse to solve. Those problems have a name, a will, and in many cases, a mental health issue that’s only getting worse with each withering moment in that little room.
Solitary was a go-to move for Soviets in the Gulag. Iran’s tyrannical theocracy uses it on political enemies. The goal isn’t to rehabilitate prisoners, but to break them. Those resisting reform, and their enablers at KSTP, should spend some time alone in a quiet room thinking about that.
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