State touts decline of solitary confinement

DOVER — The Delaware Department of Correction said Monday it has ended solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure in prisons.

The change, made as part of the agency’s focus on using “modern evidence-based practices” to create safer environments for inmates and employees, will still hold inmates accountable for dangerous behavior. At the same time, it will expand access to programming and recreation as well as treatment and services for inmates with mental illness, the agency said.

“These reforms required new ways of thinking and new investments in programs,” Correction Commissioner Claire DeMatteis said in a statement. “Thanks to strong support from Governor Carney and the General Assembly and buy-in from correctional officers, wardens, and treatment providers we have ended this outdated and counterproductive practice while making our prions safer.”

Also known as restrictive housing, solitary confinement has been shown to have a stark negative impact on inmates. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote in a report that while solitary confinement may be needed on occasion, it “should be used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints.”

National standards describe restrictive housing “as being confined to a cell for at least 22 hours per day for 15 consecutive days or more.” Per the Department of Correction, agency policy requires inmates in disciplinary detention to be let out of their cells for 10 hours a week and prohibits disciplinary detention from exceeding 15 consecutive days.

According to the Department of Correction, 59% of Delaware inmates who were living in what used to be restrictive housing were diagnosed as mentally ill. These inmates now receive individualized treatment plans.

Inmates get mental health assessments prior to disciplinary detention to determine how such discipline may impact them, among other factors.

The department has been changing its solitary confinement practices since 2015, working with the Community Legal Aid Society of Delaware and the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware. Recently, Yale Law School recognized Delaware as one of only four states that placed zero inmates in restrictive housing in 2019.

The department said inmates have greater access to programs and less idle time, which decreases disciplinary actions.

The state also offers expanded services to maximum-security inmates that were not available a few years ago. Earlier this year, education and skill training classrooms designed for maximum security inmates opened at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.

“Our Wardens, Correctional Officers, counselors, and healthcare providers have embraced our restrictive housing reforms because they know from experience that being firm and fair in a prison includes an emphasis on programming, recreation, and social contact because that more well-rounded approach improves safety and supports rehabilitation,” Bureau of Prisons Chief Shane Troxler said in a statement.

“I am proud that the Delaware DOC has been a leader in using proven practices, first-class training, and the latest technology to protect our facilities while expanding treatment and programs to enhance inmate wellbeing.”