Will Illinois join movement to reform solitary confinement?

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[Update 4/20: HB 5417 was passed out of the House Restorative Justice Committee.]

In 2011, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez called for a worldwide ban on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and people with mental disabilities, likening the practice to…well, torture.

Prison barsPerhaps it was with the U.N.’s warning in mind—and solitary-reform actions by the likes of the ACLU and President Obama—that Illinois Rep. La Shawn K. Ford drafted the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (HB 5417), a bill to amend the Criminal Code of 2012 and curtail the use of solitary confinement in correctional facilities throughout Illinois.

“This will be a new act—there are no other guidelines out there in regards to confinement, according to what I can see,” Rep. Mary E. Flowers, the bill’s co-sponsor, told Injustice Watch. Though Flowers says Ford is still tightening the language of the bill, “it’s setting forth guidelines, boundaries; something that has never been done before.”

The bill was to be the subject Wednesday morning of a house committee chaired by Ford, on which Flowers sits. The bill sets heavy restrictions on when, how, and for whom solitary confinement can be used—particularly when it involves vulnerable populations, which the act defines as: young people, older people, those with mental or physical conditions, and LBGT inmates.

Under the act, solitary confinement “shall not be used against vulnerable populations or under conditions or for time periods that are in excess of 5 days which can foster psychological trauma, psychiatric disorders, or serious, long-term damage to an isolated person’s brain.”

So no, the bill wouldn’t veto the practice completely. But it would bring sorely needed “checks and balances,” Flowers explained, and make isolation an absolute last resort—banned from use for more than five consecutive days or more than five days in a 150-day period. Inmates would be given a “personal and comprehensive” medical and mental health check beforehand, as well as the right to contest their confinement within 72 hours.

Illinois seems slightly beyond the curve here: Besides Obama’s executive action for youthful inmates in federal prisons, more states enacted reforms of solitary confinement in 2014 than had occurred in the previous 16 years.

But with five percent of the state’s prison population—2,300 inmates—locked away in solitude, Flowers says it is time here. She notes that there are more protections offered for confined animals than people in Illinois.

“In this state, we cannot leave our dogs out overnight depending on the weather,” she said. “In this state, a raccoon cannot be captured by a trap. You can’t do that. There are certain ways and certain criteria that we have to treat animals. So surely if there’s some boundaries as to how we treat our animals, there certainly must be some boundaries and restrictions and interventions on how you treat a person that is already confined.

“I don’t care what the nature of the crime is,” she said of prisoners in solitary. Each prisoner, she said, is “still a human being.”