Content warning: This article includes mentions of suicide.
On March 7, Senator Jonathon Acosta ’11 MA’16 GS (D - Central Falls, Pawtucket) and five other Rhode Island lawmakers introduced the Solitary Confinement Reform Act, which seeks to limit the amount of time incarcerated individuals may remain in solitary confinement.
While previous iterations of the bill have attempted to abolish solitary confinement, the new text focuses on limiting and regulating the use of the practice within incarceration facilities, Acosta said. The bill reads that “restrictive housing” should be “for the shortest time” and “with the least restrictive conditions possible.” It specifies that all prisoners must receive, at minimum, four hours of out-of-cell time every day.
The bill would also establish a five-member “restrictive housing oversight committee” to monitor the use of solitary confinement in the state. The director of the Department of Corrections — or a designee — will serve on the committee, along with four members appointed by the governor, speaker of the house, senate president and the Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian-American and Pacific Islander Caucus of the general assembly.
“The idea (of the bill) is to try to make what are largely inhumane conditions … as humane as possible,” Acosta said.
Acosta highlighted positive responses from community members following the introduction of the bill. “I actually just got a call this weekend from a woman whose son is in the medium security facility at the (Department of Corrections), and she was just thanking me for being the sponsor,” he said. “People seem to be excited.”
According to Acosta, the act “is a culmination of years of work and activism on behalf of several formerly incarcerated folks.” To draft the act, Acosta and other sponsors worked closely with community organizations including the Stop Torture RI Coalition, which is “an alliance of local community organizers, formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones,” according to its website.
“We understand that the Corrections Office uses solitary confinement as a way of holding individuals accountable, but they abuse it,” Brandon Robinson, community organizer for the coalition, said in a March 9 press conference.
Robinson, who was formerly held in solitary confinement, shared how he has witnessed individuals struggle psychologically due to the practice. A 2019 study in North Carolina found that formerly incarcerated individuals who were placed in solitary confinement were 78% more likely to die from suicide in the year after their release.
“Individuals deserve to have the chance to be rehabilitated versus continuously punished,” he said. “Even though they are incarcerated, they still have rights, and they should have those rights afforded to them.”
OpenDoors, part of the Stop Torture coalition and “the first and largest agency in the state specifically dedicated to helping people that have been in prison,” is also supporting the act, according to Nick Horton, co-executive director of OpenDoors. “We got involved because we saw that this was an important issue for the community that we serve and represent,” he said.
Solitary confinement is one of the most extreme ways “prisons will deny people rights or will punish them overly harshly or treat them inhumanely,” Horton said. “Although the prisons in Rhode Island are largely run very safely and have a lot of very excellent staff, there are also a lot of potentials for abuses of power and mistreatment.”
Acosta said that he is “cautiously optimistic” about the passing of the bill, though “nothing is in stone until it's signed.”
Julia Vaz is a Metro editor covering the environment and crime and justice beats. She is a sophomore from Brazil studying Political Science and Literary Arts.